The future does not need us, and apparently, we don’t need it either.
The future isn’t what it used to be.
Humankind evolved to have a long-term view, either from religious teachings, the seasons, empires, and epoques, beyond the temporal spaces of our lifetimes. We went from living in an extended present to thinking about a long-term future.
Architecture was built to last generations. Cathedrals and other examples of timeless design incorporated a distant future in the hope that today’s creations would reach “the world of tomorrow.” The fruits of labor extended generations.
Science followed with a sense of chronology extending into millions of years. The arc of time into the past gives a perspective about the future and the sense that creation is never finished. Perhaps it had a beginning, but it will never end, as Immanuel Kant once observed. Futuristic worlds are envisioned intertwined with projections into the future.
Even Darwin struggled in his initial work with the length of time it would take for evolution to be impactful. The age of the earth seemed astronomical and incomprehensive. But it was essential for evolution to be valid. He struggled with this understanding but, his work represented a breakthrough — time was deeply embedded and long-lasting when looking into the past and longer when looking toward the future.
This kind of thinking influenced our perspective on many dimensions, including the well-worn saying that “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is today” implying that the next 20 years will happen sooner than we think. It was a noble mission to plant trees today whose shade we will never sit under. We began thinking about and building for future generations.
The 20th century began with hopeful future gazing, perhaps stifled by two world wars. But, throughout the century we kept the long arc perspective about time.
However, as technology grew toward the end of the 20th century, we became less concerned with the future, it seemed. As I wrote in my article, “The future does not need us,” there seems to be a pervasive arrogance that the future will simply arrive and is our mandate to treat how we wish.
This arrogance led to some short-term thinking — what has been called “presentism” defined as a sense that only the present exists, and the future is not a horizon to be considered, and any consideration does not guide our present-day steps.
When we lose sight of the horizon, we lose sight of the context, the meaning of our current actions, and even a willingness to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists for this. In business, quarterly reporting encourages executives to prioritize short-term shareholder satisfaction over long-term prosperity. In populist politics we see leaders focusing on the next election and the desires of their base versus the long-term health of the nation. Collectively, we are failing to tackle long-term risks with potentially catastrophic consequences. Climate change, pandemics, nuclear war, antibiotic resistance — all things that can lead to an apocalyptic future are simply diminished or ignored.
These risks make it increasingly important to extend our perspective beyond our own lifetimes. Our actions today ripple forward into the future more than ever. Hasn’t anyone ever thrown a pebble into a pond? This is not an inescapable observation.
Small Changes and Big Consequences
We gladly accept the science fiction scenario that if we go back in time and make a minor change, we can affect the future dramatically. However, that mindset does not extend to today. What small actions can we take today that can dramatically impact our future? How can we do so in a positive manner instead of simply ignoring the consequences if things go horribly wrong? Humankind seems to be on a vector where it is comfortable with catastrophe more than health, happiness, and a bright future to come.
It’s easy to blame the internet, social media, and in “always on” society for destroying our ability to concentrate on anything more than something immediate, and even that struggles to maintain a singular focus. 24-hour news cycles barely deliver anything that could be considered news and tend to be ranting, raging, and polling an audience to deliver what they want to see versus an objective description of what may be happening. Technology is forcing focus on immediate consumption and immediate consumption has appropriated our attention.
I Want It Now
There is no singular cause for this short-term potentially irresponsible behavior. Perhaps it is merely an emergent property of cultural, economic, and technological changes. It does not last forever, nor is it out of our control. But it is something that needs to be combated.
Long-term impactful effects, even if in the distant future, have consequences for multiple generations, but not ours. Today, these important issues are relegated to simple abstractions. A slow-creeping problem like global warming doesn’t get on our attention radar until catastrophically too late. Even as the pandemic was evolving and spreading globally, disease specialists were focused elsewhere and not on the coronavirus.
Immediate issues can consume our psychic energy and leave a disproportionately low availability for longer-term thinking.
Culture and a Long View
While the poster child for short-term thinking tends to be business organizations, there are notable exceptions, among them Jeff Bezos at Amazon, we we can see that a culture that fosters a longer view can be disproportionately successful. Counterbalancing this is an overloaded connected life. Clearly, Amazon is swimming against the tide because even when it speaks about the next 3 to 5 years, shareholder meetings consistently focus on the next quarter. Even the best long-term planners struggle to keep that culture pervasive.
As technology accelerates its impact on the information we receive, the ecosystem of data and the network effect accelerates. Information, misinformation, facts, fictions, and biased perspectives permeate exponentially. It is accelerating.
It took over 70 years for telephones to be adopted by half the population. Cell phones took less than 15 years and the Internet only about 10 years. Technology continues to accelerate, and it quickens our life, work, and the information we use — and the overload delivered to us that saps our attention.
We Haven’t Seen This Before
Information overload is a problem that simply did not exist historically. The next generation will lead lives radically different from our own. A problem that never existed before, but is now accelerating into the present.
Interestingly, the accelerated nature of 21st-century life has diluted responsibility for our actions. The modern world has made it easier to detach ourselves from consequences and accountability.
The Economist’s “Big Mac Index” is a somewhat whimsical attempt to simplify global currency exchange, but it is much more insightful than that. It really represents a single product that has a complex global supply chain, and that supply chain bears little responsibility for whatever consequences are involved in delivering that product to your table. These include transportation carbon emissions, factory farming, water pollution, and much more. There is simply no accountability for any portion of this because of the diluted contributions among many.
Everyone Contributes and No One Is Responsible
Accountability is escaping us, but it is also challenging to grasp the consequences of our collective actions. How can we think about the damage caused by industrial farming, atomic waste, ocean plastics, atmospheric carbon, or other malignant side effects for which we are collectively responsible but not individually culpable? Our responsibilities are not visible and therefore people cannot be held accountable. This means no one acts — individually or collectively.
“Measure what matters” and, “Everything matters.” That’s easy to say but has little meaning because measurements become the targets as if facts and understanding have an ideology. This discourages longer-term thinking because only present-day targets are discussed, addressed, or prioritized. We overestimate what we can achieve today but underestimate what we can achieve over many decades.
We are ignoring those decades.
Our horizons have gotten much shorter. When I wrote my latest book, “The Ten Year Horizon,” ten years seemed a sufficient and faraway temporal space to discuss a long arc of basic scientific research and discovery that could address our most urgent problems. However, it’s most appropriate to think a century ahead in order to understand the future we really want. It’s not just for us, it’s for generations to come.
Collectively, mankind has never had so many ways to destroy itself through self-made dangers including nuclear weapons, bioterrorism, climate change, antibiotic resistance, and many other self-manufactured threats. It is time for temporal maturity and ignore the tumultuous waves striking the boat today and keep our eye on the long-term horizon.
Short-term thinking has brought the potential for a catastrophic crisis even closer. Perhaps now it is time to grow up and think about the future. What do we want to be — because whatever that may be, we are certainly not working towards it now.