A brief history of The Future — from the big bang to purpose-driven brands.
Does The Future have a past? When and where did The Future start and how has it evolved? What can The Future’s past tell us about The Future’s present, and ultimately The Future’s own future?
TLDR: The Future has a history.
The concept of The Future* didn’t suddenly appear from nowhere, many of its current interpretations reflect ancient events and realisations that existed long before the modern fields of physics, history, philosophy, futurology, science fiction and multiple other modes of future focused human thinking emerged. This post is an overview of twelve of such key events, each can be seen as a critical inflection point marking the transition from one state of The Future to another.
A brief history of The Future is intended to question and further the critical skill of Future Literacy, by helping us to “look forward by first looking backward”.
*The capitalisation and italicisation of The Future is intended as a conscious distinction that acknowledges the bias towards definitions of ‘the future’ defaulting to an entirely Western-normative and forced imposition upon all other interpretations of plural ‘futures’ and futurism, rather than a suggestion or attribution of any absolute definition or superiority. Please see the concluding footnote for further reasoning and context.
Implications upon The Future: The Arrow of Time
The Big Bang was, as far as we currently know, the origin of ‘time’ itself — and with it became the birth of the future. The Big Bang initiated entropy, sometimes called the arrow of time, resulting in the ‘tensed’ distinction between the past, present and future. Time, as instigated by the Big Bang, from this point onwards could only possibly move in one direction: from past to future.
At the moment of the Big Bang the future began, and there was quite literally no going back.
Implications upon The Future: Biological Time Frames
The evolution of the first single cell organisms on Earth marked the transition from geochemistry to biochemistry, and with this a vast condensing of temporal durations. Biological time, measured in life spans, can be as little as hours and as much as thousands of years for living organism.
The emergence of single cell organisms instigated The Futures transition from a law of nature, to a matter of life and death.
Implications upon The Future: Speculation
The evolution of Homo Sapiens, and particularly our complex brains, saw the emergence of imagined future. It is thought that it is still only human beings who have the inclination and ability to consciously imagine and plan for the future - an ability known as ‘Mental Time Travel’.
It has been Homo Sapiens primordial ability to speculate and imagine, rather than rely on instinct or reaction, that has given rise to The Future as we now know it.
“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”
― Yuval Noah Harari
Implications upon The Future: Prediction / Anticipation
The first known human-made calendar is thought to date back to c. 30,000 BC and tracks a simple 28 day lunar cycle carved into bone. This calendar would not only have given its creators the ability to anticipate and predict future events (based upon fluctuating but reliable repetitions) but arguably marked a transition between the awareness of day-night / seasonal cycles to the durations of days and months between these units.
Once a 28 day lunar calendar was established it gave way for 12 month yearly calendars, and inevitably the decades, millennia’s and further measurements of duration that now form the very scaffolding of both our contextualisation of history, and speculations upon the future.
Implications upon The Future: Transition from Pre-History to History
Pre-history is quite literally that, a time before history or more specifically a time before historic records. It was the invention of systems of writing that emerged from logo-syllabic script that enabled history to be recorded. Without the invention of writing we would arguably still be pre-historic.
Without a written history to validate and acknowledge itself, The Future would be a very different notion from its current definition.
Implications upon The Future: The Subjective Past, Present, Future
The first recorded reflections on the relationships between time and subjective memory and imagination can be traced to the end of the fourth century and the theologian St. Augustine’s work Confessions. Through his work St. Augustine, for the first time, linked the future to a subjective human experience (of expectation) rather than predetermined destiny or fait.
For better or worse, St. Augustine initiated the anthropocentric future seen through the single view point of a human individuals ability to memorise and imagine.
“Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”
St. Augustine, Confessions
Implications upon The Future: Fantasy
Our modern interpretations of The Future are heavily guided by science fiction, and while the literary origins of science fiction are well documented an often overlooked key moment in the emergence of sci-fi history was Hieronymus Bosch’s renowned painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Created at the turn of the 15th century, Bosch pictured a surreal and psychedelic landscape of the imagination that is said to be an embodiment of the thrilling potential of newly emerging European Renaissance. New ideas and discoveries were radically changing Europe - such as the printing press, the discovery of the Americas and a waves of new knowledge. Looking at Bosch’s visions in hindsight we can see the potent seeds of modern architecture, art, fashion, film, advertising, fiction and numerous other modernist and postmodernist fields.
The Garden of Earthly Delights gave visual form to unrestrained human imagination, which in turn gave form to the future itself.
Implications upon The Future: Forecasting / Probability
As recently as 170 years ago there was no scientific consensus that The Future even existed. Our modern understanding of The Future is rooted within forecasting — the ability to anticipate or imagine forthcoming events or scenarios based upon current trajectories and probability. The origins of forecasting lay with Admiral Robert FitzRoy, a celebrated sailor and founder of the Meteorological Office. It was FitzRoy who first coined the term “forecasting” in relation to his work charting observable weather conditions in order to predict future weather patterns. Prior to FitzRoy’s work a belief persisted that weather was completely chaotic. Indeed when one MP suggested in 1854 that recent advances in scientific theory might soon allow them to know the weather in London “twenty-four hours beforehand”, the House roared with laughter. The scepticism in any kind of ‘predictable future’ was common place in the mid-1800’s, seemingly contrary to a period that was a full century after the Age of Enlightenment and a popular faith in science and empirical observation.
The Future (as predictable events in forthcoming time) simply didn’t exist until the scientific, political and public acceptance of the first MET Office weather forecasts in 1861.
Implications upon The Future: “Progress” / Determinism
The emergence of technology brought about the increasing phenomenon of “progress”, where singular ideologies are often locked into self fulfilling prophecies. Determinism becomes reality through the determination of those invested in various technologies, rather than by any particular law of nature usually associated with determinism. Ironically the ideologies of such technologies are often stated as ‘laws’ such as Moore’s Law (the speed and capability of computers will exponentially increase every couple of years). Technologies rapid iteration from techne, to high-tech and now #tech is now seemingly inextricably coupled with The Future.
Technology has increasingly become the singular lens through which we gaze at, and into, The Future.
Implications upon The Future: Fictional Time Travel
Said to be the first ever known reference to ‘time travel’ in science fiction the 1881 short story The Clock that Went Backward depicts time travel into the past rather than the future. The story concludes with a philosophical thought-experiment (the temporal inverse to the grandfather paradox) which remains critical to this day. The story’s author, Edward Page Mitchell, questions whether the laws of cause and effect might ever work in reverse? This question could not be more relevant to the critical contemporary challenge found in climate crisis - we now know The Future (the implications of continued carbon emission) and in knowing this we have the ability to change our current actions. Today future effect has the proven ability to influence present cause.
The Future is not only an open opportunity, but a tool through which to reflect and adjust our present values and actions.
“If cause produces effect, does effect never induce cause? Does the law of heredity, unlike all other laws of this universe of mind and matter, operate in one direction only? Does the descendant owe everything to the ancestor, and the ancestor nothing to the descendant? Does destiny, which may seize upon our existence, and for its own purposes bear us far into the future, never carry us back into the past?”
The Clock That Went Backward
Edward Page Mitchell
Implications upon The Future: Market-Oriented “Progress”
Neoliberalism - as an economic and political approach that favours free-market capitalism and deregulation - saw ‘the market’ as the new disembodied author of The Future. The progress and determinism brought about by technology, was driven into rapid acceleration through its application by the interests of neoliberalism - driving market value ever upwards. The belief that unlimited economic growth was a force for good, and so growth should govern beyond all other concerns, rapidly became neoliberalism’s mantra. To this day both government and private financial investments into research, innovation, and application of future orientated human endeavour is governed by its direct “impact” upon the economic market (as valued in GDP).
The push-pull relationship between past, present and future has become increasingly dominated by the pull of the neoliberal growth - at all, and any cost.
Implications upon The Future: “Better”
The current state of The Future is largely dominated by what has become known as ‘purpose-driven’ (brands, businesses and organisations). These groups seek to place a social purpose at the centre of everything they do in the shared belief that they can change the world through business. As the negative and toxic impacts of Westernised neoliberalism upon the planet and society become ever more visible a commitment to making products, industries and the entire world ‘better’ has become the new normal. However, this commitment to betterment is starting from a particularly low bar, and hence it is easy to make something better whilst still causing significant harm. A phenomenon best distilled in the maxim “less bad isn’t good”. Additionally the cynically motivated, and largely performative, commitment by business to make The Future a better place entirely liberates those same businesses from criticism and regulation - few people challenge an ambition for better as a bad thing. Finally, the ambiguity of the terminology of “better” has become such a catch-all rhetoric that it can now be interpreted as pretty much anything. The counter arguments to these criticisms would propose that we can never get to the truly better without going through a phase of ‘less bad’. Yet this is exactly where the morality of purpose-driven betterment is challenged - by accepting less bad as good we are led to pause our journey to a truly better future after the first few steps, and well before the entirety of our negative impacts upon The Future have been entirely mitigated. We are being sold the aspiration of a ‘better’ future by purpose-driven brands that has an increasingly narrow definition of who, where, when and how it actually benefits our shared futures.
One person’s better Future is another person’s worse future. One generations better Future is another generations worse future. One species better Future is another species worse future.
This brief history is proposed as ‘a history’ of The Future rather than ‘the history’ of the future — due to the highly contestable and plural nature of any accounts of the pasts, presents and futures. Subsequently references to ‘The Future’ have been capitalised and italicised to identify this particular version of the future specifically as a highly WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) and colonialist annex, rather than a universal phenomenon of the future as interpretable by all human and non-human entities, in multiple known, unknown and unknowable ways. The Future is a future of the privilege of even being able to imagine a future. The Future is a singular and absolute future of; futurology, futurism, trend reports and forecasts, Gregorian calendar dates, Hollywood sequels and prequels, WIRED, ‘The future of.. x/y/z” reports, steel and glass towered cities occupied by flying cars and subservient users, and hyper information connectivity replacing bio connectivity. These are not necessarily all entirely bad things, but neither are they all entirely benevolent / good, nor are they the only means to consider the future.
Ted Hunt is a London based independent speculative and critical designer. His research and development into time and temporality has recently been realised in the crowdfunded projects Circa Solar and Circa Lunar, along with the fourth-dimensional thinking consultancy x-AXIS. He is a graduate of The Royal College of Art and currently a fellow of the School of Critical Design .