It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, October 29, 2007

Remember the Future?

Do you remember progress? Probably, if you do you, then you are an older sort like me, or an oddball collector of paleo-futurism.

Michael Chabon has a wistful eulogy for the future at Long Now.

The odd thing about contemporary market triumphalism is that it celebrates an incapacity to redesign the world. This so-called "realism", which is in fact a deep pessimism, is not really new, but it is a spectacular retreat from the the optimism that prevailed when I was an adolescent with a season pass to Expo '67.

We don't even have World's Fairs anymore.

This may be the explanation of the lack of activism in today's youth. It's not that they like what's going on. They simply don't believe that the course of history can actually be changed by human will. They retreat to sarcasm, at which they excel.

I think it may fall to us boomers again, to make change happen. We mostly still believe in the likes of Gandhi or Martin Luther King to actually change the world, but our own courage appears to have vanished along with our naivete.

7 comments:

David Duff said...

"I think it may fall to us boomers again, to make change happen."

Oh, please, don't, Michael! The changes 'you made' were almost all for the worst. Just leave us alone to trudge through this "vale of tears" on our own, the best way we can. Utopia can wait!

Michael Tobis said...

I conceded that our (boomers') impact has been a mixed blessing. I think the decline of trust and hence of reason is attributable to a shallow relativism that started on the left and has been taken up with a vengeance on the right.

On the other hand, universal dignity, going beyond lip service about rights, and a revival of the arts and spirituality is no shabby set of accomplishments. Also the food and especially the coffee is much better now.

Unfortunately there is no generation that appears willing or able to resist our lemminglike march to much effect. Boomers at least have the experience of making an impact from a democratic "grass roots" base rather than positions of formal power, which our successors lack.

David Duff said...

I'm tempted to make a cheap joke about the, er, "grass roots" of the 'Boomer' impact, but I shall resist!

Being serious, I think it is hellishly difficult to read the runes of your own society. My amateur studies of history demonstrate over and over how different peoples at different times have been caught in a 'zeitgeist' of which they are unaware, or only dimly aware, and which only the historian with the benefit of the 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight can see. That is why I am so deeply suspicious of grandiloquent, all-encompassing, utopian schemes to mould the future. They never work because they never can have the detailed knowledge to make them work.

My best example of how I think matters should proceed is English Common Law. No one invented it, no one designed it ... it just grew, gradually, slowly, dealing with a thousand and one small problems as and when they arose but gradually coalescing into a body of rules that for the most part suited most people most of the time.

It is the difference between you and me, Michael, that I think such an approach is the one best suited for dealing with climate change.

(By the way, how are the stones coming along?)

Michael Tobis said...

I know where you're coming from, David. I went to school at a private (in your sense "public") Anglican school with blazers and ties and all. As it happens, I am more sympathetic to your argument than you might suspect.

It's an old Tory strategy to cast the opposition as naive utopians.

If only there were any actual Tories left, I'd be more inclined to defer to authority than you might imagine. The Moncktons of the world are an utter disgrace to any semblance of "nobility". Unfortunately, the people passing as "conservatives" these days are not especially interested in conserving anything.

As a consequence, nobody has had their eye on an incremental path through the thicket of problems that confronts us.

Accordingly, the survival path looks less and less like good old British incrementalism, as we get further and further off the track. Admittedly, this greatly increases the risks of somehting gooing badly wrong, but once the incrementalist approach becomes inadequate, that risk is with us.

I am absolutely in favor of the least disruptive strategy that works to get humanity through the troubles ahead. Unfortunately, it looks like the least disruption is still substantial disruption.

inel said...

Oh, please, DO, Michael! (make change happen, I mean)

Dear david duff,

There is no time for deep suspicion of anything these days. We need to build trust transatlantically and crossculturally to survive the global pickle we are in.

Matters cannot proceed at the pace of English Common Law. That's just daft!

Mankind's most magnificent achievements have not pottered along at a gentle pace: some major projects of civilization took decades, generations, or even centuries to complete, but that was then, and this is now! In any case, World's Fairs and Great Cathedrals did not just happen: someone had a grand vision and it was financed to become reality.

Dear Michael,

I agree with you. The time for incremental change has passed, no thanks to contrarians. Monckton is ignoble, and Conservatives destroy that which is worth conserving and conserve that which is destroying our planet.

BTW, I watched Lovelock at the Royal Society tonight and if ever there was a case made for non-linear action, he laid it all bare tonight. I am not convinced of his approach, as I think his more depressing assessments get reported and his ideas to inspire action do not get traction with the media (or the audience, though they appeal to me). I would like to know what climate scientists think of him.

My favourite point of his (that I prefer to focus on) is this: he and Chris Rapley presented their idea for ocean pipes to help the Earth cure herself primarily to get the creative juices of scientists, engineers and technologists running, in the hope that someone, somewhere will come up with a global vision that inspires actions and turns into a real solution that gives us more time to combat climate change by other means. In terms of brainstorming out loud in public, this concept has gone off track because reporters don't know how to handle it, but I think this attack mode makes sense to so-called "creative types".

We need disruptive innovation. Scientists and engineers need to be thrown together from different parts of the world—travel broadens one's horizons, and makes the whole endeavour more exciting—to devote themselves to bursts of outside the box thinking. That's the way to remember the future!

RM Reiss said...

re: World's Fairs -- maybe they don't happen any more because the pace of change is too fast to bother organizing one. Which would also explain what has happened to the future; it has collapsed in on us. Jules Verne could project a century ahead, and over decades readers could gradually see various mechanical predictions come true (or not). William Gibson had about a twenty year lead. Now it seems we're pressed against the windshield, and several logical recent predictions are almost non-narrative in form (the singularity? grey goo? radical climate change and the collapse of civilization?). Maybe we've almost had enough future already, and now we'd just like to settle down a bit, ideally in a healthier environment. In Verne's day, many -- or most -- people were eager to consume more technology. I'm not so sure that's true to the same extent, in the West.

It changes how one thinks about the future, if the World's Fair ads for futuristic gizmos aren't beckoning in the same way.

Michael Tobis said...

A very thoughtful and insightful comment, RM.

Nevertheless, whether we are tired of and disenchanted with the future or not, it approaches relentlessly.

Ennui is no excuse for us creating a future that we and our children dread.