The Questionable History of the Future


Arts & Culture


Many centuries ago, as history was being developed and before there was an idea of what prehistoric humans were like, societies generally imagined themselves to be of divine origin and to have always lived in a condition similar to their current state. People were most concerned not with invention, trade, discovery, or learning new things but with the natural forces that beset them, which could threaten their lives or provide for a good harvest. Nature and these forces might manifest differently at different times, of course. But it was thought that nature would stay more or less the same over the years. There was no reason the future would be different.

Later, when human nature rather than the natural world became central to people’s concerns, the belief in the static nature of societies persisted, with unchanging human nature taking the place of unchanging nature. The historian and economist Robert Heilbroner cites Machiavelli, who wrote early in the sixteenth century, “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever will be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same result.” This idea, of course, exhorts those seeking to foresee the future to look at history—but for very different reasons than we would imagine now. Reading history would not show the seeds of the current situation and help one think about how it might grow into the future. It would simply be an opportunity to look at some documentation of essentially the same stasis as that in which we currently reside, to understand people of the past who are the same as people today. 

Despite our modern concept of the prophet as one who can look ahead, the ancients were not deeply concerned with even knowing the future, and certainly not with making it. As Heilbroner writes, “Resignation sums up the Distant Past’s vision of the future.” Even though prophecy is used again and again in movie titles, even though we name our relational database products Oracle and Delphi, there is little evidence that ancient prophets and oracles were visionary leaders who helped to make the future of their societies. Whether we accept the idea of bicameral breakdown or not, such figures seem to be part of static, ancient societies, ritually handling concerns for the future without developing more profound ideas of foretelling, and certainly without developing ideas of future making.

So it seems that this was our early, resigned, deterministic stance. Before we can even take a predictive view of the future, and certainly before we can engage in future making, we have to see how our concept of the future, as we know it today, actually came about.

To understand cultural concepts of the future, it’s worthwhile to begin by contrasting a belief in stasis—that over years and generations, human society remains essentially the same—with a belief in progress. These aren’t the only cultural worldviews. For instance, the early Greek poet Hesiod, departing from the view of resigned stasis, described the people of his time as being at the end of a period of decline, as being of the race of iron—the final, most base race of man. There is also a cyclical view, which in the long term is a static one but would involve improvements and downfalls. Still, the difference between a belief in a generally static social condition and a belief that things have improved and will continue to improve is an essential difference in views of the future. This shift is deeply involved in developing the idea of a future that can be co-constructed by members of society. My discussion of the idea of progress is not because I believe things will necessarily get better on their own but because having any view that goes beyond stasis is necessary for getting to the idea of future making.

In classical times, and even in times before, it was not really feasible to believe that one’s world was in absolute stasis. The seasons caused observable changes throughout the year almost everywhere, and a winter could be better or worse, a harvest more or less abundant. But many believed that the world was generally static, only perturbed by occasional natural disasters or conflicts. There was no cultural idea that society was radically improving or undergoing a decline—or even that progress was possible.

Perhaps inspired by the nature of the seasons and natural disasters, both Plato and Aristotle described society as cyclical. In Plato’s Laws and in Aristotle’s Politics, human society is described as moving from the family unit through different forms into that of the city-state, which is the political realization that allows for human excellence. Of course, this is not an idea that allows for further progress, since it names the current form of government as the best. Furthermore, the city-state cannot endure, in the view of Plato and Aristotle, so society has not progressed to a stable form but just happens to be at this point as it makes a circuit.

This seems like an odd view, given that Plato designed a society in his Republic, providing the prototype for utopian writing and the imagination of better societies. But Plato didn’t see that any society, even his carefully crafted one, was immune to collapse or would be able to continually improve.

The first major ancient philosopher to reject the cyclical view of society and advocate for a linear one was St. Augustine. A cyclical view would have been hard to reconcile with Christianity as we understand it today. Christ’s coming to earth and being resurrected, according to Augustine, were singular events. Some other Christian thinkers at the time held that they were part of an endlessly recurring cycle, but that belief ended up being condemned as heretical. Augustine’s view eventually prevailed. Although these events—unique events according to Christians—resulted in redemption and improvement of some sort, there was not a particular idea of earthly progress that went along with Augustine’s idea of spiritual betterment. The idea that our social conditions were improving came about during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

The concepts of the Enlightenment were developed in that century in the wake of incredible scientific achievements, beginning with Nicolaus Copernicus in astronomy. His discoveries, along with those of Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, suggested a new relationship to the universe, one in which the Earth was not central, nor was humankind. But the work of these scientists and of Isaac Newton also showed that the efforts of many people could be brought together to produce powerful new models of the world and insights into how the world works. It became clear that the scientific method was a powerful means of learning about the world. Since this method had been recently developed and many new discoveries had been made, it made less sense to think of the world of the Enlightenment as being essentially the same as the world had been several centuries before.

Various Enlightenment authors began to develop more specific ideas of progress. Among them was the economist Adam Smith. While he did not see a completely clear path to progress, he did describe how economies, if guided by the “invisible hand” of the free market, would be able to improve themselves. In the nineteenth century, there were two important thinkers who saw history as a process of working through opposition toward betterment. Georg Hegel, with his idea of ideological development through the conflict of states, was one. Another was Karl Marx, who described the rise of capitalism and predicted the emergence of communism through historical conflict.

Much more can be said about the idea of progress from the Enlightenment up through today. Certainly, Smith and Marx did not agree about how social and historical progress was to happen or even about what it meant to improve society. Still, even a brief review of these Enlightenment thinkers is enough to show that the idea of stasis, that a society could be expected to remain the same over time, had been supplanted by their time.

Looking beyond the nineteenth century, some major currents of thought oppose the idea that society has truly made progress. Against the improvements—many of them, even if they were not universal—in daily life, health care, and availability of goods, we should consider that the twentieth century saw genocide and war on unprecedented scale. Today, in the twenty-first century, the human population of the Earth is the largest ever, and all of us inhabiting the planet face a series of massive environmental catastrophes that rational people understand we ourselves have precipitated. Those who think deeply about the future can no longer assume the optimistic position of Enlightenment thinkers—at least, this is hardly the automatic conclusion.

While our challenges today may include very grim ones, the shift in outlook does not affect the basic question of how we form an idea of the future. Is our society static, as if we are offshoots of the gods placed in an unchanging world? Or is it possible for things to change—for the better, hopefully, but really in any way at all? Let’s allow that we may discard the philosophical optimism of the past—that scientific discoveries will automatically lead to improvement, that the free-market economy will improve itself, and that conflicts of ideas and classes will lead to revolutionary, better societies. Nevertheless, we can believe that the future will not be only more of the same and that it will not be only that given to us by divine powers. Once we see that the future can be different, as those Enlightenment thinkers did, we can begin to think about shaping and building the future. Yes, even if we don’t buy every element of the centuries-old idea of progress, the concept can help us see that change and improvement can be possible. That is a starting point, at least, from which the more powerful idea of future making can develop.


Nick Montfort is a professor of digital media at MIT. He is the author of Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction and Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities.

From The Future, by Nick Montfort. Printed with permission of the MIT Press. All rights reserved.