Better stories, better futures
We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it—and we should start now.
"The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented" - Dennis Gabor, “Inventing the Future”, 1963
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Once upon a time, humanity didn't believe the future could be changed.
For the entirety of civilized human history leading up to the Enlightenment, the idea of progress was not a coherent one. The thought that the future could be materially different from the present was as absurd as the inverse is to us today. Cycles or stasis were understood to be the only possible modes of human social systems.
This isn't all that strange if you stop to think about it. What reason would a pre-Enlightenment thinker have to doubt that the future would somehow be different from the present? Stability was the norm. Technology progressed slowly, and the problems of the day resembled those of years, decades, and centuries past. Institutions like the Oracle of Delphi persisted because they'd always be right, eventually. Until advancements in medicine came along, plagues would happen on a pretty regular cadence. Thus, if a plague was foretold in antiquity, it was bound to happen at some point.
This mode of understanding corrupted even potentially progressive ideology. Plato saw Greek society of his time as part of a cycle that would eventually decline. His famous Republic, in his own words, was an ideal human society that would not be particularly stable. In other words, the progenitor of the concept of utopia didn't think his utopia could last if it ever came to fruition. He also could not conceive that a social order other than that seen in the contemporary city-state could exist. The obvious problems of The Republic, including its rigid caste structure, gender disparities, eugenics policies, and dispassionate justice system are a result of Plato's inability to imagine a future status quo that was meaningfully different from the present. He saw the philosophical peak of ancient Greek culture without the ability to imagine that other mountains could even exist.
While ancient thinkers like Plato had part of what was required to move society forward, namely the ability to imagine more optimized versions of their current social structures, they lacked the other necessary piece. They lacked the ideological tools for enacting change, instead operating under the more limited framework of prophecy and stasis.
The Enlightenment changed this way of thinking. The flood of scientific and technological breakthroughs showed that change wasn't just possible, it was in some ways inevitable and uncontrollable. Revolution spread like wildfire, and the idea of progress entered the Western zeitgeist. We charged into Modernity, and the future became an infinite frontier of positive change.
In the last half-century or so, it seems that we've lost this spirit of progress, the inevitable pull forward into the aforementioned frontier. Up until World War Two, and a small slice of the postwar period after that, there was a marked sense that the future was just around the corner. Promises abounded. Abundant energy via nuclear fission, revolutions in air transport, the possibility of civilian space travel, all of these and more could be seen on humanity's horizons. And yet, instead of flying cars we've gotten 140 characters, as the saying goes.
Of course, there are some valid criticisms against this idea that we've become technologically stagnant. The progress of the last few decades has been mostly digital, with technology like smartphones, the Internet and the modern web ushering in a revolutionary era of communication. There's also the idea that we've already picked the low hanging fruit, that the explosion of progress in technology could not continue unabated. Like with most exponential curves, the reasoning goes, so too must this one plateau.
But even if we leave aside the question of whether digital technologies like the web are a benefit to society, progress in the non-digital realms has been arguably anemic. There are plenty of reasons for why this could be the case. One argument I'm fond of points the finger at postmodernism. The moral relativism, nihilism, and recursive irony that pervaded the 1970s to the early 2000s sufficiently disabused us of our ability to dream up grand narratives, to the detriment of the big, important projects. Instead of Clarke and Le Guin, our imaginations have been shaped by the likes of Palahniuk and Tarantino. This shift was warranted, of course. Our previous system of unbridled Modern values led down disastrous avenues. But we've over-corrected, applying the brakes instead of injecting caution and correcting course.
So where does that leave us? Are we doomed to stagnant purgatory, or will we get our flying cars?
I think the answer is pretty simple. It's wholly up to us. The idea that 'the best way to predict the future is to invent it' isn't an idle witticism. But it also doesn't have to be understood in the grand, maximal sense. To write the future we don't need to build behemoth organizations or climb to the highest ranks of institutional authority. To write the future, we just need to write convincing stories.
Pre-Enlightenment thinkers viewed the future as something static, horizons best understood by looking to the stories of the past. They were concerned with future-telling and prophecy, with Delphi and Nostradamus. During the Enlightenment, we unlocked future making, the idea that we could create the future by writing convincing fictions in the present. The digital age has given us the tools to create these stories on an unprecedented scale. We can create almost anything, share it with almost anyone, unrestricted by time and space. When Bellamy wrote his classic work of utopian fiction, looking into the future to Boston in the year 2000, he was not playing the part of the prophet but instead that of the architect. In a small way, he helped shape what the actual cities of today would look like. Through both inspiration and suggestion, science fiction and design fiction, the thinkers of the past molded our present.
While I think that we've slowed down in the last few generations, we now live in a world where the sum creative genius of our species can be pointed at the work of imagining greater futures, almost totally uninhibited. Bellamy helped build our present by imagining his future, but he was one of a select few who had the privilege and ability to do so. That privilege now exists for a much larger slice of humanity, and that's an awesome thing.
To get our flying cars, we need to keep creating the types of stories about the future where they plausibly exist. We need stories of utopian futures, solarpunk imaginings, and design fictions that propose practical, plausible solutions to the present ills of society.
For my part, I imagine a future where we look back on the present day as an era of re-invigoration, a second act in the age of progress. I imagine the people of that far flung time looking back and saying:
Once upon a time, humanity believed the future was theirs to shape
Thanks to Evyn Tindle for reading drafts of this post, and to for continuing to inspire this newsletter with her work over at .
There’s a common theme among creatives that encourages building each day minute by minute with the big picture silhouetted in the background. Each day is another building block to filling in our ideal future, but today is just as important as tomorrow. You’ve encapsulated both that theme and the hopeful energy we all strive to embody in this essay!! Great work.
I love this so much. It’s so true, we need to point toward a better future if we’re going to create it!!