This piece was written as a contribution for Vinay Gupta's crowd-sourced book, The Future We Deserve.
Futures are funny things. We plan for them, think about them, obsess over them, both individually and as families, groups, cities, even cultures. We expect out futures to create a coherent narrative with our past. Our media is saturated with experts, telling us how the future will unfold. Even when they're telling us they don't understand what's happening, they do so from a position of expertise, a position that says, “Not to worry, chap, our top minds are working on the problem. We'll have this whole 'future’ thing wrapped up in no time.”
We do the same thing with the past. There, we call it history — the cherry-picked and miniscule subset of past events, strung together as the supporting evidence for the image of ourselves that we desire. Narratives are no more present in actual history than in any other random sequence of events. The future, or what we think of as the future, is this process in reverse.
We understand a lot of small-scale natural processes, but we're only just beginning to grasp how interlinked they are. The way those large systems change and fail is a cause of ongoing surprise, worry, and increasingly tragedy. Our reach has outstripped our vision.
The natural world is only a small part of our future, however, and we're even worse at understanding people. People are a big part of why we construct narratives. We need to understand what they're going to do to choose our current actions, and when we're working with other people, we need to share our understanding of the world and our intent. Narratives are a great tool for this, but they're plagued by mistaking the map for the territory and the story for the world.
Our production of narratives runs very deep. We create the “self” as a distinct entity, different and separate from the world, and create a narrative about how that self has interacted with the world through its history. This, even, is where the problems start. We try to live in that narrative, instead of in the real world. The self we create doesn't really exist, and the narrative we create is more fiction than real.
The future, the real future, doesn't come from the stories we tell, it comes from the actual lives of people. To affect real change, we need to look to those lives and the contexts in which they're lived. Understand lives and contexts, and you understand the now and the future. Change lives, change contexts, and you change the future. Of course, humanity is big and incredibly interconnected. Just like no person is going to understand all seven billion lives, let alone the implications of their interconnections, no one gets more than a glimpse of the future. Those glimpses come from seeing through the narratives to the real people, and understanding their lives with real compassion. Foresight starts with our first narrative — it starts by getting rid of the fictions that you've built up around who you are stopping the pretence that you are separate from the world, or indeed that your “self” is meaningful at all.
If we want to act, we can only act in the now, and interact with the actually existing conditions in the world. For the purpose of action, there is no future. This isn't to disregard the power of narrative to shape people's actions — the shared understanding still functions, and it can trigger other people's actions in the now. It's a dangerous tool, though, because it carries with it and reinforces the seeds of illusion.
When I saw that the future doesn't exist, I'm not saying that it won't happen, obviously. When it happens, though, it will just be more now, with all the messiness, ugliness, and, sadly, suffering that that implies, but also with the beauty and the joy that can only be experienced in the moment.
Each new instant arises from the decisions and tensions of its predecessor. When the new now appears to have shifted very quickly from past ones, it's because of millions of small decisions, not a few big ones. The narratives we tell, what we hear on the evening news, only tell us about the big and often meaningless decisions. As such, those narratives are increasingly useless, especially as they become more and more time-sliced and schizophrenic, with less space for the analysis of real lives.
There is no plan. There is no actual grand narrative. Think about what may happen later, but live, learn, and act in the now. Look into the dark corners that narratives want to forget and that make you uncomfortable. Don't ignore the truth just because it doesn't agree with the world you want, because it's the world you're going to get.
ella at dymaxion dot org / @dymaxion