January 1, 2012


The Next Future (John Crowley, Lapham's Quarterly)

During a summer in the late 1960s I discovered an easy and certain method of predicting the future. Not my own future, the next turn of the card, or market conditions next month or next year, but the future of the world lying far ahead. It was quite simple. All that was needed was to take the reigning assumptions about what the future was likely to hold, and reverse them. Not modify, negate, or question, but reverse. It was self-evident that this was the right method, because so many of the guesses that the past had made about its then future--that is, my own present--had turned out to be not only wrong but the opposite of what came to be instead, the more so the further ahead they had been projected.

You could, of course, riffle through the old predictions and now and then find some tool or technique, some usage or notion, some general idea of how things would get gradually better or suddenly worse, that seemed eerily to foreshadow the actual; but that was really a game, where you took some aspect of the present and tried to match it with what the past had once thought up. Captain Nemo's submarine is driven by a heatless inexhaustible power source--Jules Verne predicted the nuclear sub! What was almost never predicted correctly was what the present world would be like: like to be in and to experience. There is a wonderful moment in Edward Bellamy's influential futurist utopian tract Looking Backward (1888) where a character, having fallen asleep in the 1880s and awakened in the year 2000, rushes out of the house to see the new world--after fortunately finding among the hats on the hatrack by the door a hat that fits him. In the future we, at least we proper folk, will still not go "bareheaded" or "hatless" into the street, for fear of being thought mad or distracted.

So it seemed clear to me that if you simply reversed what the past had imagined, you got something close to the real existing present. The same principle would therefore work for the future, and I went about applying it to the limning of the world that would exist in, say, five hundred years' time. (I had nothing to do that summer; I had lost my job and was squatting in an unoccupied building as a sort of watchman. It was the time and the moment to think up things never before thought up.)

What predictions could I reverse? One general assumption at the time I set to work was that overpopulation would soon create a future of scarcity and desperate struggles for resources everywhere, including the rich First World, all earth filling with humans as with lemmings. So reverse that: perhaps as an unintended result of attempts to limit growth, numbers will cease to rise and start downward, and in the far future populations will be not large but small, maybe vanishingly small. Pollution, smog, river fires, acid rain spoiling the natural environment and making the built environment uninhabitable? No; smokestack industry, even all industry, will in time cease to grow, tumorlike and poisonous, and instead shrink away. The near-certain chance that eventually, by accident or on purpose, thermonuclear weapons would destroy even the possibility of civilization? No, no nuclear war--somehow it will be obviated. But if vastation by the bomb were escaped, it looked certain that the peoples and nations would be knit ever more closely together by interlocking technologies, skiving off human differences and reducing us to robot cogs in a single ever-growing world machine; or, conversely, that technology would vastly increase wealth and scope for the fortunate in a groomed and gratifying One World with an opening to the stars. No, neither of those: no technology in the future, no space travel, even our current technology forgotten or voluntarily given up, becoming a wonderful dream of long ago, as we dream of knights in armor. So then, brutish neoprimitives squatting in the remains of a self-destroyed technoworld? No, no, that's what you'd guess, and it will therefore be different from that. Self-conscious minicivilizations, I thought, highly cultivated yet without reading or writing, unknown to one another, with concerns we can't imagine, walking humbly on a wounded but living earth.

This vision was enthralling to me, convincing because so unforeseen: its roots in the present firm and deep yet so occult that they will only be able to be perceived after centuries. Above all it seemed to me to be a future that had no lesson for the present, gave no warning or hope, made no particular sense of history or the passage of time. Its unknowable origins lifted from the present the burden of needing to do the right thing now in order not to be punished in the time to come. There was no right thing that could be done; we would just have to do our best. The future would be strange, but all right.

....all predictions made by Intellectuals and ignored by Americans, part of our culture's genius.
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Posted by at January 1, 2012 9:40 AM

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