The Future

by Jonathan Wallace

George Orwell's 1984 was assigned reading in my public school. It was used as a means of educating us about totalitarianism. The most memorable phrase in the book is the description of the future as "the place where it is always light." This turns out to be the torture room, where the lights are never turned off.

A personal history of the future

As a small child, I had two visions of the future, both involving a linear progression from the present; in the first case, the line went up, and in the other case, down. The first vision can be described as the "World's Fair" version; in the 1964 World's Fair, the General Motors exhibit took you through an animatronic future of the personal-helicopter, automated-house, better-living-for-everybody genre.

The other vision appeared nowhere at the 1964 fair, but had already become popular in the '50's: it is there in the b-movie The World, The Flesh and the Devil. You can see it in the Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last and many other episodes of the show. It became increasingly popular in the 60's, 70's and '80's, in films such as A Boy and his Dog, The Omega Man, Road Warrior and many others. It is the bleak, post-nuclear wasteland, in which the world reverts to a simple, binary, Nietzschean paradigm: there are only two classes of people, the murderers and their victims, the eaters and the eaten.

Science fiction has always offered these two futures, like a child holding out its two fists. In one the coin of the better future is concealed; which hand will you pick?

I started reading science fiction at a very young age. The very first book I took home from the school library was Robert Heinlein's The Star Beast, which takes place in that cleaner future of star flight, health and longevity. Like many readers, I was drawn in first by the promise that the future will be better than the present, but stayed to appreciate the poignancy of dystopian futures--science fiction's bait and switch maneuver.

Heinlein also is the perpetrator of one of the most distressing of apocalypse stories, Panic in Year Zero, later filmed with Ray Milland. In the opening moments of a nuclear attack, a solid middle class citizen immediately abandons his wife and son, whom he believes do not have the right stuff for survival, and goes off to become a Nietzschean superman with his daughter. If I remember correctly, there is even an implication of incest-- anything to survive and to propagate.

In the end, I spent more time believing in the wasteland.

Images of a better future frequently seem shallow, trite and propagandistic. In the World's Fair view of the future, everyone is impossibly clean and well-manicured, and dressed in robes or jumpsuits. The children are smiling automatons, better behaved than I was or any children I knew. Since the people who create these utopias, at the World's Fair or on film, are not artists, and are usually concerned with selling an uncritical idea of progress, anyone with what Hemingway called an "effective shit detector" knows he is being lied to.

At the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, there is a model of a nuclear-powered automobile. It is very long, and there are baffles installed halfway which are supposed to protect the driver from the radiation at the other end. There is no information on how the people in the cars behind it or pedestrians are protected. The fact that anyone spent time thinking about the thing and building the model is a prime illustration of the phenomenon I am talking about: there is no more uncritical sale of the future than a nuclear-powered car.

On the other hand, the wasteland accorded better with what we knew about the world in the 1960's.

In a dream I had around 1963, my parents and I were in the living room of some neighbors across the street. Their daughter was playing some slow classical music in an eerie minor key, and we were all very sad. The world was wrapped in an autumn leaf, and we knew we would die very soon, as it shut out the sunlight.

I didn't know it at the time, but my dream was about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Since it is patently evident to everybody who watches the world around him that "tout casse, tout passe, tout lasse" (everything breaks, passes away, wears out), it does not take much of a leap of the imagination to project the daily degradation into the future. Small failures today extrapolate to great ones tomorrow. When you see a gun in a movie, you know it will be used later; when you see an atom bomb in the world, you know it will be used later.

Adding to the absurdity of life and the likelihood of the wasteland future, was the early 1960's attitude towards training children for nuclear disaster. During the years of worst tension, around the Cuban missile crisis, we held nuclear drills in my school where we hid under our desks. In order to believe, as a child, in the World's Fair future, you must believe as a prerequisite that adults know what they are doing. As a seven year old, I felt no confidence that the glass windows or flimsy wooden desks would protect us against the force of a blast. In Brooklyn, a few miles from ground zero in Manhattan, the grown-ups seemed to be preparing us to defend ourselves against a flash with no force. They themselves seemed hysterical, or confused about what we were trying to accomplish. At some point I read John Hersey's Hiroshima and understood that people melt away entirely, that sometimes only their shadows are left burned into the concrete.

Then there was the Vietnam war, antipersonnel bombs that shot little steel arrows, napalm that seared children. The adults seemed unable to explain the importance of fighting there, doing such terrible things and enduring so much horror. It was not hard to conclude that the adults running the world, and responsible for our future, were a band of sadistic hypocrites.

If one peeled away the vision of nuclear disaster, a very hard thing to do in those days, there was still the Second Law: the world would still wear out. This was the dystopian environmental vision of the 1960's, that it wouldn't take nuclear war to put us out of business. It could come, instead, through the exhaustion of resources, economic burn-out, and the depletion of compassion.

In books with titles like The Twenty-Ninth Day, a Malthusian future was painted in which human population growth (sometimes called the "population explosion" or even the "population bomb") took the place of nuclear weapons as the trigger of our destruction.

When I was a child, I knew there were three billion people on earth. Today, thirty years later, there are nearly six. I am nearly silenced by this thought, as it comes very close to making all human creativity, all individual aspiration, all art and thought, irrelevant.

In the sixties, as I learned about the environment, I came to the conclusion that humans were a sort of intelligent rats, able to solve most problems except the key one of how to avoid fouling their own nests. I still believe this to be fundamentally true; a key insight into human nature, expressed in the tragedy of the commons, illustrates how little motivated humans are to consider or plan for the future.

T.S. Eliot's "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper" has become a truism over the years. One's mind shuts off today when hearing the line, because one has heard it so many times.

In 1968, an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine introduced me to the concept of "Lifeboat Earth" and also to "triage", a methodology for deciding whom to save and whom to let die. For example, the paterfamilias in the Heinlein story performed triage when he saved his daughter and left his wife and son. The article used the phrase "immense issues of the human future," which I have repeated many times in the years since as an ironic refrain when discussing matters of much smaller importance.

During the 1960's, I had a recurring dream in which I saw the atom bomb falling, sometimes a tumbling "Fat Boy" shape with fins, sometimes a coffin with a parachute. Later, the vision of the nuclear disaster as a cognitive break in history faded away. In the 1970's, we were more prone to see the Soviets as difficult and argumentative neighbors than as zombies or monsters. Nuclear war, which had never seemed more than a minute away in the '60's, became much more remote. After the Soviet Union fell, it hardly seemed to be a consideration any more; the global nuclear war portrayed in Dr. Strangelove or Failsafe receded to the more manageable idea of the terrorist with the bomb in the station wagon taking out one city while the world goes on. Since I live in a prime target, it is of course impossible to be completely sanguine about this.

With the fading of the nuclear vision, the "whimper" future took precedence. In a college class on Chinese politics around 1972, the professor said in a humorous moment that he had a daydream in which the U.S. became a third-rate power, dependent on China, and he himself became an important person. A few years later, in law school, I read Gibbon, who believed that history is the record of human folly and misfortune. This was a revelation and a confirmation of some private beliefs. In school, we were always taught that history was an orderly progression and the future was the right hand side of the graph where the line hit its highest point. Past disasters and declines are not so frightening if one does not look at them too closely. At a great remove across time, they appear to us foreshortened, and it is not hard to incorporate them into patterns. But when you spend too much time reading about Rome, you get obsessed by the parallels, and you start wondering why it could not happen again. The Roman future around, say, 200 A.D., is the "whimper" future: the gradual weakening of the empire, the transfer of power to Constantinople, the fall of Rome to the barbarians, and then the gradual slide of the Eastern empire into something complex and unrecognizable (remember where the word "byzantine" originated) before it too is wiped out entirely. If it happened to them, why couldn't it happen to us? The belief that "we are different, and it couldn't happen here," is usually based on egoism and little else.

The eighties, the era of Reaganism, were notorious for a rosy sense of opportunity and optimism ("its morning in America") concealing a rapacious drive for advantage and a "fuck the future" attitude. Leveraged buy-outs were popular, in which huge debts were incurred to buy undervalued companies which were then broken up for scrap and sold to repay the lenders. Those brokering the deals made fortunes, but the companies were put out of business and people lost their jobs. The rubric of "maximizing shareholder benefit" was the ultimate triumph of the present over the future: "I have my money now, at the expense of your job later". This is reminiscent of the baffle in the nuclear car, separating the insouciant driver from everyone less lucky who is behind him on the road.

So much for the human future. As a child, I was never able to envision my personal future: it was a scary blank. The rites and responsibilities of adulthood were unfathomable to me: I could not imagine how I would ever be able to pay taxes, or be responsible for a family. I had a vivid imagination, but it extended more easily to images of myself as a nineteenth century explorer or naturalist, as Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Dolittle, than to the future.

Later, in my twenties and thirties, I was immobilized for a long time by the belief that my life then was a prelude to something better to come after. This inspires a curious passivity; rather than believing that the things I built now would lead to the things I wanted later, this idea made everything seem very insignificant and insubstantial. It was as if all of the choices I made at that time of my life were made in an anteroom, and no meaningful choice could be made until I was admitted to the main room.

I cannot say for sure when this idea evaporated. Today I know that I am living in the main room of my life. As a result of this knowledge, every choice is pregnant with hope and fear; every opportunity missed is poignant with the knowledge it will never come again.

In order to live my life, I had to kill my personal idea of the future. As long as the future was an entity, it created in me a false sense of assurance that action was not necessary. But when I came to believe that the future did not exist, action became everything.

In many ways, I believe that it is best to live an "as if" life: to conduct yourself "as if" free will, free speech and other freedoms exist. On a more morbid note, it makes sense to live as if every day was your last day, conducting a daily balance, leaving nothing unsaid and no emotional or moral debt unpaid.

Waterfall and spiral futures

A major impediment to thinking about the future is the gross linear simplicity of our thought. We are taught to regard the future as an extrapolation of human history, and history itself as an ascending or descending line on a chart.

Of course, human linear thinking does not affect our view of history alone. It is a hardened casing we must break in every domain of thought.

For example, for years people attempting to make rules for the way computer software should be developed preferred something called the "waterfall":


--where each of these on a chart was usually set slightly below the one before, representing a process which cascaded down to the finished product.

In more recent years, software development is understood to be more properly represented as a spiral or iterative process. Each spiral in the series may contain some analysis, some design, some coding and some test; once we have iterated this enough times, we have reached the goal.

History itself may be understood as a spiral process. For example, people are constantly trying to map the decline of the Roman empire on to the modern history of the West. Of course, you can do this on a line graph by showing a long decline, a rise and another decline. But it is arguably more useful to regard the Roman empire as a lower spiral in a series.

In fact, analyzing history as a spiral process is more optimistic than analyzing it as a linear one. On a line graph, we may wonder why the line must sink at all; make a long enough graph and the rising and falling of the line may lead one perilously close to thinking of history as a random walk through time. In a spiral process, we may cheerfully assume that things get better with each iteration. In software development, we started out with superficial analysis, vague design and imprecise coding and got better with every swoop. Fans of civilization may similarly tell themselves that we become more humane, healthier and technologically more advanced each time around.

This way approach reveals that spiral thinking is a more sophisticated variant of linear thinking. It still leads us to think of history, of time itself, as a process, leading from worse to better; with all those spirals, we are still going somewhere. And it also hides in its heart the concept that human history tends towards a predestined result, a finished product: perfect humanity at the end of history.

We have all watched hawks spiral down to a kill or a landing, their relaxed wings communicating a stately purpose. (Some of the most beautiful lines in Yeats' poetry use this image, which he describes in archaic language as "perning in a gyre.") What if human history was more like the flight of a sparrow, a random swoop from tree to bush to rooftop to the gravel and back to the bush, interspersed with stereotyped head movements and calls?

The only undeniable progression in human history is that we have created more powerful tools. Any other conclusion, that we are more humane, more civilized, or in any other way superior to the people of a thousand or ten thousand years ago, is iniutive, even self-deceptive, rather than based on empirical evidence.

As a child, the twin possible futures of the World's Fair and the apocalypse both were produced by linear thinking. In crude terms, the future could either be upwards or down from where I stood. It could not be to the right, or left, or behind my position; and the path which I took to get there must be a straight line and not a random jog.

Data and presentation

In my twenties, I sometimes listened to an all-news radio station, which reported two pieces of information every morning which meant nothing to me: "London gold prices at the morning fixing" and "wave heights on the Sound." I imagined making a comparative line chart of these two types of data and discovering that London gold prices were somehow influenced by wave heights.

Every user of spreadsheets and graphic programs knows that you can generate impressive but meaningless charts from any data series. A spreadsheet program will not stop you from generating a pie chart from time-series data that would only be meaningful in a bar chart, for example.

A two dimensional line chart or a three dimensional spiral may not be meaningful ways to portray historical data. But we have not yet faced the question of the data itself: what is it we are trying to portray when we visualize history?

Meaningful charts of historical events have been made based on empirical data. The most famous example may be the map and chart of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. A line shows the geographical position of the army; the thickness of the line shows the number of soldiers left alive; other features of the chart allow you to read the date and temperature at each point on the way. Effective charts are made from numbers: people, time, temperature, latitude and longitude.

When we try to visualize history we are charting "human progress". Since progress is grossly intangible, there is no way to chart it and any attempt to do so involves a substantial self-deception.

Of course, historians have always had an uneasy marriage with statisticians and scientists. Contrast Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll and Fogleberg's Time on the Cross as two approaches to the history of American slavery. The former, like most mainstream historical writing, is essentially anecdotal, based on the theory that history is a tapestry of individual human lives, with the famous in the foreground and the "common man" providing the background. All of this, because history is an academic discipline, is expected to be built on a substrate of numbers; a historian of slavery is expected to know how many slaves there were, how many died young, how many were sold up or down river, and how many were freed. But this is no more than the technical mastery of detail we expect from an artist, and the portraits woven from slave memoirs, diaries, court transcripts and the like are the art itself. By contrast, Time on the Cross was widely execrated at the time it came out for being not only wrong-headed in its conclusions but exclusively statistical. The author was considered to have missed the heart of the story.

Time on the Cross takes its place with works such as those of Fernand Braudel and others who believe that human history can be founded on the statistics of commerce, epidemics and other measurable events. Part of the clash between the two cultures illustrated by C.P. Snow in his famous speech, the battle between emotional and statistical historians has always been won in the popular imagination by the former. Anyone will grant that meaningful charts of influenza deaths or manumissions or divorces can be created. But few people feel that such charts, no matter what factors are combined, are the mystical chart of human progress itself which we all consider history to be.

One could presumably select some factors which would allow the construction of a chart which would almost satisfy most people. Perhaps a combination of average lifespan, literacy, and wages (but limited to the Western countries) would come fairly close to what most people think of as historical progress. The chart would have to have some glaring omissions; for example, if you add to it the incidence of wars and genocides, you would reverse the result of making the twentieth century look like the best time in human history. You would make it look like the worst instead.

Back to the sparrow metaphor. If I take real data and produce a chart that looks like a random flight, the message may be that I am producing the wrong visualization of my data, or indeed that there is nothing to be learned from visualizing it at all. I may be wasting my time and energy doing so, when there are other ways I could be learning from the data.

In Amboseli

In 1978, I went to Kenya and visited the national parks. In Amboseli, I stood overlooking an immense plain full of antelope, harried by cheetah and lions. The youngest and strongest antelope, bounding away from predators, were the liveliest--the livest--things in the scene. But everywhere we went, we could also see antelope bones, and the remains of half-eaten antelope rotting away. Sometimes in the midst of a herd we saw an antelope, sometimes a juvenile, with a broken hoof, and we knew that that animal would almost certainly be picked off by the predators before the day was over.

In Amboseli, life was constantly rising up and falling away; the plain was a vivid snapshot of life and death, of a self-organizing principle fighting the Second Law of Thermodynamics and of the Second Law coming to bear life away.

What we saw in Amboseli was a snapshot. It was the present, but it bore all the information we needed to understand. The data would have been less meaningful, more confusing, presented on a timeline. By analogy: in photographing the plain at Amboseli, you would want to use an exposure rapid enough to freeze the fleeing antelopes in mid-bound. A timelapse photograph would instead have shown you all the animals on the plain as a writhing mass of spaghetti. When we try to graph history and come up with something like the random flight of a flock of sparrows, we have used a timelapse approach when we should have used a snapshot.

Free will

I was greatly relieved to read an article in The New York Times recently explaining that quantum physics cannot be explained in words. Reading about physics (I am unable to understand the math) is one of the few times I feel stupid.

Stephen Hawking says in A Brief History of Time that time travel is apparently possible, though it seems impossible that humans can generate the amount of energy that would be necessary to perform it.

Thinking of friends and relatives who have died, I am comforted by the thought that we are all lines extending through space-time. My line is longer than theirs, but we all exist together; looked at this way, there is no death.

One can get dizzy wondering why one's consciousness is limited to the brief moment known as the present, and winks from point to point down that line. An even more problematic thought: if all time exists "simultaneously", as all space does, then free will may not exist; our lives are laid out like our houses or cities are, already planned and finished.

The best response to this is that, whether or not free will exists, we have the powerful perception that we are making choices every moment. We are not ultimately capable of knowing for certain, just now, whether free will exists. The consequences of assuming it does not exist are, if one is wrong, a wasted life. The consequences of assuming free will exists are, if one is wrong, meaningless actions. The first consequence seems far worse than the second; therefore, it makes most sense to live as if free will existed.

I have set this up as a straw man, not because I think that free will may not exist, but because belief in a detailed future seems to me to sap the will and to be almost as bad as a belief in predestination. We are weak and lonely, and we project images onto bleak walls which make us feel less alone. For some, a belief in the future takes the place of the belief others have in God. The more detailed and inevitable the future, the more powerful it becomes, and the more passive we become. Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski made a related observation about hope, calling it the "killer" that made men passive and accepting of their fate in the camp, when desperate men with no hint of a future would have fought.

It is important to remind oneself frequently that the future does not exist. It has not been invented yet; each action we each take, and the sum of all our actions, help to invent it. This magnifies our choices to a sometimes unbearable level, but leaves us utterly free.

Morality and responsibility for the future

Humans are among the few animals that have any view of the future, and are the only ones that can conceive a detailed image of it, and even make up stories about it. In so doing, we run the risk of deifying the future, and paralyzing ourselves.

Sober and responsible people characteristically take stock of the potential effect their actions have on future generations. An argument in favor of freeing ourselves from our image of the future suggests that we not worry about any budding tragedies of the commons. We can dump garbage or bury spent nuclear fuel or emit ozone-destroying chemicals without visualizing the consequences.

There is some truth in the accusation. In fact, not every human action which was justified by resort to its effect on the future seems equally correct to us today (we who live in the actors' future). For example, Roman custom demanded that citizens not free too many slaves in their wills; the implication was that anyone who did so didn't care too much about the quality of life after his own death. Most modern views would favor the slaveholder who freed all his slaves.

This is not to say that one day we will discover that PCB's in the environment are good, just that we are not always right about the future. Many of the most desperate extrapolations of thirty years ago have already proven to be wrong.

However, a better answer to this criticism is that we can (and should) decide moral issues pertaining to the commons without resort to the future--in fact, stories about what will happen in the future are only a vivid shorthand for getting the point across. Usually, we are saying that something we believe to be bad today will become even worse if we keep doing it. But we could just as soon prove the point by reference to a Kantian categorical imperative in the present. For example, if everyone on earth leaked a pro-rata share of poisons into the environment, what would happen? If we wouldn't be happy with everyone doing it, we must recognize that it is harmful for anyone to do it. We can still engage in balancing acts, measuring emissions against human happiness, but we can do so without dragging the future into it.

Most predictions, as Hume originally pointed out, are simple common sense assumptions that what has happened before will happen again. When I looked at a wounded antelope on the Amboseli plain and predicted it would be dead by nightfall, I had no special image of the future; the prediction was based on a little knowledge about the predation of cheetahs and lions. Extrapolation of current events into the future is rooted in human common sense and survival instincts. Only when we glue it with reverence and create something real to ourselves, something imbued with more authority than the mere shadow cast by our own minds, do we inspire ourselves to lay down the burden of volition.

When I was a child, I had many poignant conversations with my father in which I asked for assurances about the future which he could not provide. I remember asking him how the human race could avoid extinction, given the odds against it raised by the depletion of fossil fuels, the population explosion and the increasing scarcity of food. He shrugged and said that humans have a way of inventing something at the last moment. In retrospect, this seems very much like Borowski's hope that kills.


If hope is destructive, what is the alternative? I see no answer but to live on two planes at once, that of the is and the ought, of perception and imagination. With our minds, we can see the world as it is, while at the same time we live as if the world were as it ought to be.

Clearing from our minds the projection of the future, and living as if today were all, we can act courageously, as humans always have, to bring about the world we wish for. By relinquishing the phony future, we can act to create the real one. I am speaking of a kind of controlled self-deception. By living as if the things we desire pertain, we act towards them, to get them or to bring them about. A value is called forth by human will from an idea. If we situate the idea itself in the future, it may make us passive and kill itself. If we situate the idea in the present, and act, we may create the future.