Where does the future come from?

Day by day, small changes are turning our world into that of the future. We don’t really notice it, except when our parents are unable to use their new tech widget. Or, god forbid, the power goes out and we are shunted back to the previous millennium. At such times we might find ourselves perplexed by how things worked in the past: twenty years ago, an appointment to meet someone in the city required you to schedule a time and place to meet, and then actually be there at the agreed-upon hour (Californians in particular might find this hard to accept). Without cell phones you’d be stuck in limbo, waiting for someone who might be in traffic for five minutes or tapping their feet at a misunderstood meeting point. Moreover, you’d actually have to plan out how to get there before leaving your home, lest you subject your rendezvous to such a limbo. Reminiscence aside, the point is that as we go about our lives, worrying about mean people and philosophical ideals, the stage for our lives undergoes dramatic changes.

The future

The future indomitably forces itself upon us, but where does it come from? By the end of this century organ donors will no longer be in high demand, and interacting with digital devices will be through voice and gesture more often than by typing. But who makes it so? By whose authority does the real world turn into the imagined (and sometimes the unimaginable)? One answer would be that it ‘just happens’, that every single person’s actions have this tiny incremental effect that somehow adds up to the progress of the world. Leo Tolstoy would condone this belief. In fact, he spent something like six years writing a book on the theme that “great men” are merely figureheads for the spirit of the time. That if Napoleon had died at Arcole another would have taken his place, and would have been forced to make the same decisions as Bonaparte did. It’s not easy to refute these claims. But it’s also kind of a non-answer, since we can’t imagine the “zeitgeist” substantially doing anything except guiding the hands of men. And without insight into how this supposed force works, we are no further along than when we started our inquiry.

Whether particular individuals matter or not, we can still ask: ‘what category of people bring about the future?’ (be this on behalf of zeitgeist or their own free will). The most common answer seems to be “the people in power”, although opinions differ somewhat on whether membership in this oligarchy is dependent on wealth, political office or corporate authority. As I see it, the assumption here is that after achieving a position of sufficient power, your day-to-day decisions are so influential that they shape the path by which we (the world) encounter the future. It’s easy to see how one would come to this conclusion: I know that my own future is shaped by my decisions, but it doesn’t feel like I have any power over ‘The Future of The World’. It’s obvious that Warren Buffett’s decisions can have broader impact than mine, so perhaps this feeling of impotence doesn’t apply to him. Nevertheless, while the people in power certainly have the ability to affect many lives, I would question whether their power isn’t acting on the present more so than producing the future? Sure, the two are necessarily related, but I don’t know that they’re inseparable. If we look back through history, monarchs don’t stand out as the people that brought about the future. It would seem that more change came through Gandhi than George V (and that Gandhi’s position of power followed rather than preceded this change). Even looking at the present, the idea that the future is produced by those in power seems (at least at times) to be patently untrue…

At least that’s what people in Silicon Valley believe. Google wasn’t started by powerful people, but few entities seem more synonymous with The Future. You could of course argue that Larry and Sergey had entered the group of “people in power” by the time they brought us the future, that Google as an unmonetized search engine wouldn’t have shaped our world to the extent that the company now does. But examples of world-changing technology are endless – the origins of lasers can be traced through a legion of (more or less) humble scientists and engineers, Gould, Townes, all the way back to Einstein, without encountering an all-powerful beneficiary. And it’s hard to argue that putting the Encyclopedia Britannica on a 12 cm disc, restoring vision to the (nearly) blind and Steve Aoki concerts are anything but spectacular representations of The Future. To some people, then, the answer to “where does the future come from” is “from the ones that build it”. Politicians, venture capitalists and society at large represent circumstances that must be properly navigated while you’re making the impossible possible. People like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil would obviously fall into this camp (in fact Kurzweil might be called the camp counselor), but so would Francis Bacon and Benjamin Franklin. Part of this view’s appeal is that  it’s tremendously enabling, and these days supporting examples seem to happen rather frequently. At the same time, however, Sergey Brin would probably tell you that building Google would not have been possible in Russia.

Self-driving car

On the third hand (we are talking about the future here), we might ask how the builder decides what to build? How could the hands create what the mind can’t conceive? With this in mind, perhaps the future really comes from those who extend our concept of the possible. In this case it’s not so much made on demand as glimpsed by someone, who then initiates mankind’s slow trod towards making it reality. To quote Steve Jobs: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. Of course this visionary could be an entrepreneur, or a president. But it could also be a humble science fiction writer, or a Hungarian doctorI find it hard to completely rule out any of the three paradigms we’ve discussed, and this last possibility in particular is utterly impossible to test empirically (until somebody comes up with a way to measure ideas). If pressed for a definite answer to the original question, I might postulate that a true Agent of the Future is inevitably a collaboration between influence, invention and imagination. Though without saying anything about the dynamics between the three, this might not be any more useful than saying ‘the zeitgeist did it’.

Perhaps a better way to address the original question is by asking another: Can we somehow measure the fundamental unit of ‘Future’? In other words, is it possible to transcend the “I’ll know it when I see it” definition that the discussion above is based on? If so then this might be the most plausible way to identify the people producing it. But while we get that sorted out, we can at least be confident that  wherever the future comes from, the only way to get there is through tomorrow.

Last updated by at .