For some, the future is terra incognita, foreign land that we cannot know until we arrive there — or rather, until it arrives here. But that’s not quite right, is it? Because while you can’t predict the future, you can catch glimpses of it right here in the present if you know where to look.
Optimists like to imagine a future in which today’s problems, difficult as they are, have been solved — and maybe we finally get our flying cars. Pessimists, on the other hand, maintain a darker view, one that’s extremes are replete with gray rhinos, black swans, and boiling frogs.
After a long, brutal year of endemic plague punctuated by widespread civil unrest, it’s easy for many Americans to understand and adopt the pessimist’s stance, that is, to see the future as threat. Glued to our devices, we have grown accustomed to daily reports of the world’s unraveling. The information superhighways that were supposed to lead us into a glowing age of prosperity appear instead to have left us at either dead-ends or worse — in smoking pileups. After perhaps the most contentious — and worse, incompetent — presidency in our history, the nation is as anxious, confused, and as dangerously divided as ever.
Many of us have, quite reasonably, lost faith in the things we might have once taken for granted — things like the ability to one day own a home for one example, or that American democracy is the model that the world should aspire to for another. Confidence in our public institutions — not to mention faith in our fellow citizens — remains historically low, a distrust driven by year after year after year of routine gridlock and Thelma and Louise-style crisis brinksmanship that has unfortunately had very real negative consequences for millions. Lately, it appears we’ve even started to lose faith in our military, which has, until recently, enjoyed practically unquestioned and widespread support across many segments of society.
But the travails of the past year were an outlier only in the scale of the damage inflicted, not in kind. Americans have for decades now endured a torrent of successive crises, each one a psychological blow that has sapped the nation’s collective will, not to mention its prestige. From terrorist attacks and ecological disasters to near-economic collapse and, most recently, a murderous putsch that reached the very seat of our government, these events have in aggregate left many of our fellow citizens simply exhausted, engendering a passivity about their ability to effect change in the present and an at times even fatalistic attitude about our common future as a nation purportedly in sharp decline.
Though the highest authority I can claim today is that of the freelance writer, I was an intelligence officer in a past life. The public has, over the years, probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach me how to synthesize data, identify trends and make forecasts. Which is to say, I know a little bit about how the future gets made, and I hope you will believe me when I say that the passivity described above is dangerous — not only because it feeds the very cycle of crises that in turn generate more detachment, but also because the constant doom-mongering is remarkably ineffective at actually getting anyone to do anything.
You read that right. The future is made.
Let me explain. When we think of the future as something that just happens to us — when we reduce ourselves to its mere observers, either its beneficiaries or victims, we are robbing ourselves of the very agency that makes us human and essentially letting ourselves off the hook. The truth is, the future doesn’t just inexorably unfold — because we are social creatures with networked capacities that far exceed anything like what our ancestors possessed, it is something we are actively creating with every choice we make and pattern we repeat.
And yet, our hands are not completely free hand to create as we see fit. The future is significantly path-dependent; choices are constrained by decisions made before. The choices we make are also themselves influenced by larger driving forces that we can think of as either reinforcing continuity or driving change. ‘Forces’ might sound mysterious, but it’s just shorthand for the broad impersonal factors — whether social, economic, technological, or ecological — that encourage or discourage behavior in individuals.
But again, that’s no reason for Americans to think of themselves as merely so much flotsam buffeted by the torrents of fate. When we become aware of these forces, we also get better at seeing how to drive the changes we want.
The forces of change can be incredibly powerful. Change is, after all, the only constant. But the status quo has an inertia of its own. The forces of continuity are sufficient, usually, to prevent change from spreading too quickly. And even when they fail to do that, they’re often able to co-opt change, to mold change into its own image.
Think about it. Objects at rest tend to stay that way. The sunk costs of legacy investments drag heavily upon the decision-making of corporations and governments alike. People grow attached to the familiar. They are often skeptical, or even fearful of change. As a result, existing systems tend to stay in place regardless of whatever new gadgets we adopt. Even on the rare occasions when those systems are uprooted, the patterns they’ve ingrained over time remain visible for decades, if not centuries. There’s a reason, for example, why Google and Amazon build their data centers along the same trails blazed by those who once built the transcontinental railroad.
For an example of how we create the future through the continuous interplay of these forces, consider how 2020 played out. Advances in digital communications technologies had provided the ability to collaborate remotely from almost anywhere on earth well before the pandemic struck. But this particular force of change was held in check by even more powerful forces of continuity that preferred to keep things the way they were. Before the onset of the coronavirus crisis in March, both the private sector and the public had soured on the notion of remote work.
It took an exogenous event like the virus and its various knock-on economic effects to loosen continuity’s grip, forcing government agencies and corporate boards around the world to embrace the change they had only recently shunned. Telepresence and remote collaboration quickly became indispensable. They’ve proven so successful that some go as far as to project that we might never return to the office, with major firms like Microsoft and Facebook having already announced their staffs will work remotely permanently. Salesforce went so far as to declare that the “9-to-5 workday is dead.”
But even in crisis, continuity retains a powerful grip. Recall, for instance, how many organizations this past spring tried to simply replicate their normal, in-person work practices remotely, with uniformly frustrating results. It took months for traditional office cultures to adapt to the distributed, asynchronous, and necessarily more informal nature of remote work. Some workplaces never adapted at all, and have defaulted to the familiar in a rush to “get back to normal.” While it is quite likely that we’ll see remote work becoming far more commonplace, I wouldn’t put money on the wholesale revolution that some have predicted quite yet.
The future, it turns out, has a strong status quo bias.
Too many would-be futurists fixate on a particular trend or technology and are frustrated when their maximalist projections turn out to be wrong. Others make the mistake of exaggerating the strength of the status quo, thinking that what exists now is more permanent than it really is. To make more useful projections about the future, forecasters must account for the forces driving both change and continuity. The single biggest mistake in most predictions, as a raft of recent work has shown, is overconfidence in the extent of change. Even during a crisis, widescale change is gradual.
If predictions start by recognizing the power the status quo holds over the future, it forces us to see our world in terms of systems and to see ourselves as actors within them. It is at once empowering and intimidating because while it gives us more agency to make deliberate choices, it also holds us more accountable — both to our future selves and to those who will come after us. They’re the ones, after all, who will be forced to live in the future we’re building.
When we recognize that the future is being created, right now, by us, it allows us to eschew the more conventional conception of seeing it as a linear path we’re walking down. Instead, it forces us to realize that we’re actually building the path ourselves, step by step.
The question is, where do we want to go?