Remembering the future; imagining the past.

While this may seem paradoxical there are many ways in which this is how we view events that stretch in both directions on the timeline from our present

The recent anniversary of the Back to the Future film is an example of how we judge the present on how we predicted the future in the past.
The way in which we imagine the past however is often shaped by our ideological beliefs. The recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag might be an example of this process by which history gets used as a symbol of resistance to change when it was seen as the mark of resistance to the civil rights advances of the 60s

Much of history is remembered facts, the names and dates of Kings or Presidents. We teach children the big events, wars and conquests, plagues famines and the rise and fall of empires.
But even the Roman historians recognise that to the victor went the right to write the history.

We never have a complete and accurate picture of the past there is always the other side of the story; all the many sides.
All we can do is extrapolate.
And interpret the full history of the past from the small indications we have from what has been recorded and from what we can discover. This is largely an act of creative imagination.

We are imagining the past.
we judge the present by comparison with the past but we also judge the present by comparison with the future we expected. The future we had planned and worked for in the past. Or feared and strove to avoid.

Much of human life, it’s governance from the individual to the large-scale social level is purely reactive. it takes no consideration for the future beyond seeking to make it a continuation of the present. It is dominated by the problems and opportunities the recent past has bequeathed to the present.

Its main purpose is to maintain the status quo, the conditions that society and the economy have adapted too over the last decade or so.
It is myopic about the past beyond this short few years.
If society and the economy has adapted or even optimised to the current conditions then these are taken as the ideal conditions. To be defended, to be preserved against change. This becomes an ideological and political motivation for the people making policy within governance and business.

If there are problems within a society or an economy this political and ideological preference for the status quo may be expressed as a desire to return to the last time conditions were favourable.

They may want the future to become as they imagine the past to have been.

But the problem for those in favour of the status quo, is that it requires an imagined past not an accurately remembered version.

Perhaps our individual sense of continuity and stasis is one we project onto the world around us diminishing and ignoring the enormous changes we might live through just as we may assert we are, ‘essentially’ the same person we were 30 years ago. Perhaps we collude in the delusion that the world is very much as it was 30 years ago.

But just over a century ago there were 1 billion people on the Earth most (95%?) of whom lived in poverty with high rates of infant mortality and short lifespans; most were illiterate. Most lived in conditions of habitation, sanitation, health care and welfare provision that we now see only in the most deprived and backward areas of the globe.

In the present there is still 1 billion people that live in similar deprived conditions.
but there are also over 7 billion people living in conditions that only a small percentage enjoyed 100 years ago.

Most of the inhabitants of the globe live in buildings with sanitation have access to education healthcare and even welfare program that were unknown two generations ago.

The inexorable logic of the numbers means that the population will increase to ~10 billion, the challenge will be to ensure that the extra 3 billion join those who have risen to the middle at least and not those at the bottom of all the measures of human progress.

It can be a mistake to only measure the human condition by the wealth and consumer expenditure of the individual.
During the rapid rise in population many nations improved the education and health care and welfare of their citizens before they attained  the wealth of the western colonial nations that had followed a different historical and social path to improving the conditions for the majority of their populations.

All this past change in the structure size and shape of global society seems to be discounted or ignored when governments and business grapple with the topical and local issues that drive policy decisions.

The imagined history of a constant and unchanging past, the status quo, continues to drive and motivate political activism opposing the prospect or possibility of change

Occasionally policy is driven by a dream of a better future or a nightmare of a future to be avoided. There are utopian futures we strive and hope to achieve and dystopian future as we fear and wish to avoid.
From the fifties to the 80s the history of cinema films of the future (or near present) is dotted with dystopian post nuclear war or radiation polluted horrors. There were a few utopian visions, until perhaps Star Trek ?!
Although one director did manage to cover both. Dr Strangelove and 2001 explore the two extremes visions of the future that might inform the policy decisions of those that are usually concerned only with the present, recent past and reacting minimally to both.

When human societies make policy decisions in reaction to present conditions they compare them to an imagined past with far less change and far more continuity than a realistic record reveals. …We have always been at war with Eastasia….

A policy that is both ideologically and logistically wedded to defending an assumed unchanging status quo will be most antagonistic towards the message that change is inevitable and the only effective adaptation or response is change in the form and structure of the governance and economy of the global social community. Climate change from our CO2 emissions is the obvious example. With a timescale just a little too long to be an immediate concern, but an impact beyond that too large to dismiss as an adaptable change.

An example of the pernicious effects of this assumption of continuity can be seen in a recent article by Lomborg with the headline This child does not need a solar panel 

Because in the imagined past of the neoliberal ideology the advancement from poverty, gain in child mortality and life expectancy the improvement in education all the measures of civilisation are predicated on obtaining wealth by trade expansion and the extensive use of fossil fuels, it assumes the same for the developing world. That the future development may follow very different paths is not just rejected but dismissed without consideration. This assumption that the future will be like the imagined past relies on suppressing the knowledge that great change has occurred and most of the population that now enjoy the benefits of education healthcare sanitation sound housing and increasingly the benefits of the Internet interconnectedness of societies did not follow that historical pathway.

For almost everyone alive today the first decade of their existence was colder in every year in the last decade they have lived; there is no overlap. That is unlikely to be true for any previous generation. However the present dominates our policy, it is driven reactively and the assumption we make that the past affects us but is basically an older version of the present, with little fundamental changed or altered, shapes our responses.

When we judge the present we may celebrate that we avoided the future modelled in the nuclear war apocalypse. We may celebrate avoiding the politically dystopian future Of 1984 and Brave New World at least in so far as we have avoided them so far.

It is by remembering the future as we expected or feared that we form a judgement of the present we have reached.

And it is by imagining a past that is simpler and more static than is real that we defend the values of the present we wish to preserve.

I can recommend gapminder as a good source for information about the real evolution of human society over the last century or so..



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.