Thinking about Future(s) from the Pasts

Can we learn from our histories, and discern what could happen in the future(s)?

That’s what we do everyday, actually. We constantly thinking about possible steps in the future(s) from our past experiences. Why do you try something new? Because it’s different from the past. Why do you stick to a few options? Because you have learnt from the past.

So we are learning to make decisions about the future from our past.

And on to bigger things — what about where we are in the current moment? How do we begin to think about possible future(s) from our pasts?

I use the plural, because until we arrive at that future, there are multiple possibilities to consider. We have to accept that our assumptions can be wrong, and will be wrong. We also have to realise, that we have the imagination to reframe our past. Even if the past has already happened, we have the capacity to learn different things from the same event. You can go watch Pixar’s Inside Out to see how that happens.

We can learn about possible futures from the past. But we cannot map historical examples and try to map them one-for-one. Because the historical example was really different from the present. We can draw out situations and methodically lay them out one by one, and describe how different facets are similar and different. We have to realise, that we are fundamentally using present lenses to look at history, and that in those historical examples, they too, were using the lenses of their time to look at their own situation. How we interpret the history reveals more about our own present lenses/frames/assumptions, and less about the historical events themselves.

I find the Neustadt and May’s book Thinking in Time (TT)to be really helpful in starting us on this. TT offers a few simple rules of thumbs when using history.

  1. identify known issues, problems, and assumptions of both the past and the present;
  2. Figure out the narrative (for both past and present);
  3. Trace the timeline (for both past and present)
  4. Ask journalistic questions;
  5. Ask other people about likelihoods;
  6. Ask about what facts will change the assumption;
  7. Identify the histories and backgrounds of the relevant parties.

These are practical tips, and they are a good starting guide for thinking about how to use history. In this series, I’m going to try to think a bit more broadly about where things are going in our present day, nearly two decades in the twenty-first century, and comparing our present moment with what has happened in history.

Some of the things I want to look at are:

  • How special is our current moment in time? The most special one? What do we mean by ‘special’? Is the rate of change accelerating? What can we compare the rate of change with?
  • Are there broad patterns in history? When can we make use of them, and when not?
  • Are there broad drivers of history? Are there systematic ways to think about these broad drivers?

I hope to touch on a few of these as we go along. Stay tuned.