I’m 28. For most of my adult life, the future has been all around me. We’re told every day that something is the future of something else. It figures – as we now live surrounded by technology. And technology tends to produce a new ‘miracle’ every couple of years. Things in the present are getting faster. Which means the future is only going to come faster too.
It’s around us every single day. We spend most of our waking time on social media – the future of communications. As of 2014, there are more smartphones than people on the planet – the future of computation. New platforms like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are the future of experience. Not driving our own car is the future of transportation. Living on Mars is the future of life itself. The future is everywhere. It’s meant to make us happier, and yet we are more anxious than ever. It’s meant to liberate us, and yet sometimes it’s suffocating.
Whatever happened to thinking about the past?
I’m not talking about looking at the past for the past’s sake. I’m talking about using the past as a way to understand which options we have in the future. When we read about history, we’re trying to understand what happened at a certain moment in time. But we’re also trying to understand how we’d react in those specific circumstances. Or how key people of history would behave today. When we read about philosophy, we’re trying to decipher the minds of great thinkers. But we’re also trying to translate their ideas and their time to today’s language. And today’s circumstances.
History and philosophy are not dusty disciplines for dusty academics. They are key components that tell us where we’ve been before. How we got here. And how we could consider what to do next. They’re not static documentations of ideas. They are rich portraits of group and individual behaviour. The future promises us a vast number of new ways to behave. But we must learn more about the past to help us consider our real options.
Yuval Noah Harari wrote that the best reason to learn history is not “to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies”. He’s onto something here.
History can help us look at the past as one of various alternatives. But it can also help us perceive the future in the very same way.
Philosophy can have this effect too. When we read Plato, Sartre or Watts, we get a glimpse of how they thought. And we get a glimpse of the time in which they thought it. Great thinkers are a product of their circumstances. This alone doesn’t help us predict the future, but it allows us to see the past as one of various possible scenarios. Which means the future is also no one’s guess. It’s a series of possible scenarios. And we do have a choice about them.
In a world obsessed with the future, this is the benefit I get from the past. The idea that our thoughts are a result of our circumstances. And with exceptions, we can change our thoughts by changing our circumstances. Why must we spend so much time glued on a smartphone? Why should we migrate our bodies and minds to soulless realities? Virtual, augmented or otherwise? Why should we let go of the joys of driving our own car?
I’m not against modern visionaries who see tech as the solution. I read about them. I read their biographies. I appreciate their role. I sometimes even respect it. But I am against our blind faith in this new religion. And I am against not having boundaries or balance. That is the lesson of the past: that we can choose to not be a victim of these set destinies. That we can believe without sacrificing our own selves for these shared dreams. That we can rebel by refusing to follow these shared behaviours. Or at least be honest enough to know why we really follow them.
This is why the future needs more people who think about the past. The future always seems inevitable. The past teaches us that there is always a choice. You can choose to have a limited number of apps on your phone. You don’t need all that junk. You can choose to turn off notifications. It’s almost never that urgent. You can choose to master your devices instead of being their servant. Your future self will thank you.