Why have we stopped imagining the future?

Not too long ago, I was researching about imaginations about the future from different eras in the past. It was an interesting exercise seeing how people in the late 19th century were able to imagine so much about how the world would be like and what kinds of technologies we would have 100 years later, despite the fact that they had access to much less technology compared to what we have today.

It was pretty fascinating seeing just how far they could imagine. From dictation machines, to robot cleaners, to flying ships. The best part was, 100 years later, many of these technologies have been invented! (You can see many of these amazing illustrations here: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/france-in-the-year-2000-1899-1910/ )

(Image source: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/france-in-the-year-2000-1899-1910/ )
(Image source: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/france-in-the-year-2000-1899-1910/ )

Perhaps the highest point of human imaginings took place in the 1960s. This was the era where people didn’t just imagine what the world and its technologies would be like 10-20 years later. No, they were bold and they dared to envision the world 100 years, 1000 years, 10000 years later! And you find these imaginings in the form of drawings, cartoons, novels (science fiction), and even in architecture! The 60s was such a rich era of imagination that even today, nearly all of our futuristic sci-fi movies are based on stories written in the 60s. That was surprising!

But what about today?

It’s the year 2015, and we definitely have more technology than people in the 19th century or even in the 1960s. But for some odd reason, our imaginations about the future has ceased to be bold or daring. If you try to search for contemporary imaginations of the future, the furthest you get might be a video or conceptual art of the world 10-50 years later, and the future doesn’t seem very different from what we have today. Where are our contemporary imaginations of the world and the kinds of technology that we will have 100 years from now?

There isn’t any!

I don’t know about you, but I am very disturbed.

We have stopped dreaming, we have stopped envisioning the world and the future. We have stopped being bold and daring in our imaginations.

Should we be worried? I think we should!

Bold and daring imaginations are what inspires the hearts and minds of many. They are the seeds for future innovation and invention. It is the bold and daring imaginations of those in the past that have inspired whole generations to dedicate their lives towards making those dreams into reality. If not for such visionary people, like the famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov, we would never have many of the technologies that we have today. It was their bold and daring imaginations of the future that captured our own imagination, and gave us ideas as to what kinds of technologies we could have and use, and how these technologies could make the world a better place.

Most importantly, many of these bold and daring imaginations gave us something to look forward to, something to hope for – a world or a goal worth pursuing.

In their writings or in their art, these great visionaries gave us whole worlds – sometimes a configuration of a world so vastly different from ours – and it compels us to see that there are alternate ways in which the world could potentially be. These are useful simulations of how the future might be like, and it prepares us for future events that we cannot ourselves predict. After all, we don’t know what the future will be, and we cannot assume that the future will be exactly the same as it is today. These rich narratives fill our minds with an almost infinite set of possibilities of what our world might be, and it is for many of us, a general direction and guide on how we wish to work towards the future.

So, to discover that we as a society have stopped imagining what the future might be like, or how we would like the future to be – that is worrying to me. Have we become complacent, or have we just lost our hope of the future? Or have we simply lost our creativity? What happened? Why have we stopped making such bold and daring visions, and instead settle for mediocre ideas of the near future?

Yesterday, I led a philosophical discussion on this issue with some university students. Some of them raised this point: Maybe we don’t have to be worried because the future is now. We have the technology and the means today to realise whatever imaginations we have. In the past, people didn’t have such capabilities, and so they could only resort to drawing or writing out their imaginations of future technologies. But today, we have the means to realise many of our imaginations, and if we need the money, we can raise it easily (e.g. through a crowd-funding platform such as Kickstarter). We don’t need to pen down our imaginations: we can make them ourselves!

This sounds really grand and optimistic. And if I may add, this account is a refreshing outlook compared to the usual pessimism of the future that I hear from people of a similar age group.

But I do wonder… Have we become arrogant and complacent in the process of having so much access to a wide offering of technology? Have we become so empowered that we have become deluded to think that we are indeed capable of materialising everything?

I mean, we still dream of flying cars, but that’s not a reality. We dream of space travel to far distant planets (within a person’s lifetime), but that’s not something we can achieve with crowd-funding and our existing set of technologies (at least not anytime soon).

There are two kinds of possibilities: (1) near possibilities where we have the resources to make a new technology happen; and (2) future possibilities where we are not yet capable of realising because we haven’t quite figured out how to exploit a certain phenomenon to achieve the intended result.

Maybe we are confusing the two kinds of possibilities. In the past, where people had limited access to technology, there were much less near possibilities and much more future possibilities. Today, we are in a situation where we have far too many near possibilities that we forget that future possibilities exist. Or have we become too over-confident, that since the rate of development and technological progress is so fast, that we think that future possibilities are now within our grasp? Or have we simply conflated future possibilities with near possibilities, that we forget that they exist? Even if these were true, does this excuse us from not imagining the distant future? What will be of our society as we continue in the years to come without such grand dreams and imaginations?

Maybe we are still dreaming, but perhaps we are in a very fortunate (yet ironic) situation, where despite our bold and daring imaginations of the world 100 years later, the rate of our technological development and progress is far too rapid that those dreams are realised now, and we haven’t quite caught up with these developments to dream new dreams.

Whatever the reasons may be, I am strongly of the belief that we must dare to imagine what the future holds for us and for our future generations. These will be the dreams and visions that will guide not only us, but possibly even the future generations after us.

If there is any legacy worth leaving behind, it would be this: that we leave behind a vision of hope, a dream of a better world, and continued inspirations for the future generations after us.