The future is the mess we’re in now

–Humans are a forward-looking species, it’s been said, if only because of our use of the future tense. In fact, if we are to believe Kant, the three most important questions in our lives are entirely future-oriented: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?

That, though, is the pull side of the transaction of the future tense: The ends to be achieved through more knowledge and hope are what pull us into the future. There is the push side as well: To live in the present with our questions and answers is to push us closer to a future where the originating questions and current answers have to matter still. We use to refer to the latter as that Augustinian threefold present—past as present remembrance, present as direct experience, and future as present expectation.

–With that in mind, once we get rid of the notion that the future is “what lies ahead” as if it were a land yet visited, the easier it is to understand why predictions about that future are never proven false or true. Rather: If the future is the mess now—that is, our inability to predict it always preoccupies us—then the future is far more now than later. Or as novelists have long known, it’s already difficult enough to predict the present.

–What’s a policy example and, anyway: So what?

First itemize a few of the apocalyptic predictions that have failed to materialize over the past five decades: global nuclear war, communist world hegemony, global starvation, global oil depletion, a prolonged night/new ice age triggered by burning oil wells during the Gulf War, and the international meltdown because of the millennium computer bug.

Now itemize—again an arbitrary few—crises we have actually lived through in just the last three decades or so: the 1987 market meltdown, the banking crisis of the early 1990s, the Mexican near-default in early 1996, the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Long Term Capital Management collapse in 1998; the bursting of the market bubble in 2000, the terrorist attacks in September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the breakdown in the Doha round of multilateral trade talks, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, the default of Greece and the increased fissures in EU; the resurgence in Western populism and nativism. . .(and don’t forgot the Argentine default of 2001 and the world fisheries collapse and. . .)

“How many times do you need to hear the world is ending before you realize it isn’t ending,” asks author, Michael Lewis.

When, we must all ask, does unremitting apocalypticism become apocrypha?

And yet, still, this habituated response: “But, but it could get worse, very worse!” Well, yes, it could. But just as well couldn’t the crux of the matter be that such lists demonstrate a resilience in the admittedly crisis-prone that many underestimate, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, globally?

Or to put the issue in terms of the opening points, what are we now getting from this habituation with the messes of it-could-get-very-very-very-much-worse, these being ones we (want/have to) live in and with now? One answer: By definition, doing so saves us all the trouble and worry of having to figure out the details of the disasters we find unpredictable, now.

–What crisis scenario do I have in mind now? The earth releases gases into the atmosphere that are then triggered by sunlight into storms, droughts and other natural disasters. No, not global climate change, but Aristotle’s theory of comets. I read that a new advance in science and technology threatens to set abroad grey goo. But which grey goo? The one predicted from recombinant DNA experiments at Harvard in the 1970s, the genetically engineered “ice-minus” bacterium for Berkeley strawberry fields in the 1980s, the genetically engineered crops of the 1990s, or the nanotechnology of the 2000s, or something newer?

The result is that we’re asked to treat possible scenarios seriously until proven otherwise, now-right-now, when those offering the scenarios are often unable to specify what it takes to disprove the scenarios or prevent their recurrence. Let’s face it: It’s become too easy to cook up disaster scenarios. One is put in mind of film producer, Sam Goldwyn, who when asked about restaging the Last Supper, exclaimed: “Why only twelve? Go out and get thousands!”

Such is the low-skill toehold of many disaster scenarios passing themselves off as forward-looking. You think I’m implying that we shouldn’t worry about the future. Wrong. The point here is that we are once again back to a key narrative discrepancy in crisis scenarios—between the stated urgency to innovate and experiment on one side, and the stated requirement for reliability and stability on the other—yet both claims underwritten by demands of unpredictability at the same scale of analysis, the system level.

For example, companies want innovative strategies to secure more customers for all its lines of business; the minute company lawyers find out that doing so means experimenting with employee tasks, then come the narratives of “employee unrest,” “media reports and “loss of market.” We hear on one hand, “If you want stability, you have to experiment” but then again, “Since you have nothing to lose, why not experiment?,” without fully appreciating that discrepant “you”—singular or plural, personal or impersonal—in each statement. Such narrative discrepancies can’t be written off or talked out of; it must be managed as one of the messes we are in.

I want to be clear about the messes in the preceding paragraph. The term, “innovate” and its cognates, pose a very difficult dilemma about which we by definition have little experience. On one side, while I find it impossible to believe all current environmental alarmism, those who criticize alarmists are far too comfortable in saying “innovation” will save us. I see no such deus ex machina. Yet, from the other side, it’s far preferable for a policy analyst to retain some sense of being naïve—open to new ideas and ways of looking at things—in comparison to being altogether jaded in “having seen it all.” It seems to me we are always in a position to be productively naïve—the very complexity ensures we can recast the seemingly intractable—in a way those who insist we must innovate “because we have no option but to” cannot be. Isn’t the point of child-like (not childish) naïveté that it’s the right box within which to see the difficulty and inexperience as if for the first time?

Related blog entries. “Complexity is the enemy of intractable,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter and failed states,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Managing inexperience,” and “Difficulty at risk and unequal”

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