Human beings are good at imagining the future. So why don’t we do it?
I recently had the opportunity to ask a roomful of high-powered executives a question they’d never been posed – “Where do you imagine yourselves in 40 years’ time?” I could hear a few gasps as the enormity of the question hit them. Nearly all of them expected to be retired; a few of them – those in their sixties – imagined they didn’t exist in that future at all. None of them had given the matter any thought until I put my question to them.
Human beings are exceptionally good at imagining the future. Some evolutionary biologists have pointed to this singular characteristic as the secret of our success: we are the species who plans ahead. In order to plan for the future, you must have the capacity to imagine that future. Foresight has always been one of the most highly sought-after human characteristics; where once that might have meant auguring the entrails of slaughtered cattle, or (rather less destructively) watching the flight patterns of sacred birds, today we frame that skill as a concatenation of memory, experience and discernment – or, if you prefer, wisdom.
But, in itself, looking forward cannot make us wise. Wisdom requires the ability to peer into the future without passion. Our passions for what we want to see in the future fatally colour our ability to make wise predictions about that future.
After they’d reflected on their own position in that future, I told those executives I expected to see myself alive and well in 40 years’ time, even though I will be in the midst of my centenary year. The actuarial tables for 2062 predict that less than 1 in 200 male Australians will make it that far, so my future is coloured with a lot of bets that our understanding of ageing and wellness will have accelerated significantly across those 40 years, that being an active “super-senior” in 2062 will be no more remarkable than an active 80-something today. Am I letting wishful thinking shape my predictions?
Yet my entire lifetime has been a period of remarkable change; advances in medicine in the last 40 years – although less significant to life expectancy than the vast improvements made in public health in the century prior to that – mean that many of the diseases that afflict humanity can be treated or prevented. We’re now making great strides in our understanding of the biology and genetics of ageing, while in the same moment, an ageing global middle class has both the need and the capital to pay for any treatment that extends their vitality. The last 40 years saw my father live 25% longer than my grandfather, and I fully expect the next 40 years will see me enjoy another 25% increase over his lifespan – bringing me to my centenary.
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This means I operate under the expectation that I have half of my adult life ahead of me, putting me at the “midpoint” of my career. In August 1982 I got my first “real” job, working as a (very) junior software engineer, beginning my lifelong involvement in technology.
The bleeding edge of technology in 1982 looked like a first-generation IBM PC, displaying 2,000 characters of green-on-black text on a small monitor – no pretty graphics, not even a second colour. That PC wasn’t connected to anything except maybe a daisy-wheel printer, capable of rendering only the characters that could be drawn on the display. The whole system chugged along at a few hundred thousand instructions per second.
Flashing forward to the present: I write this column on a four-year-old iPad Pro powered by Apple’s four-generations-ago A12x system-on-a-chip, with seven billion transistors, accessing a quarter trillion characters of storage, connected to a mobile broadband network delivering 100 million bits per second. The whole system is at least a thousand times faster than that original IBM PC (sometimes a million times faster, depending on the task), weighs less than one-40th as much, consumes one-100th the power, and so on.
My smartphone – less than a year old – is at least twice as powerful as my iPad, and comes equipped with a feature that allows the device to precisely map the dimensions of any space, by measuring the “time of flight” of photons emitted by and reflected back to its “LIDAR” sensor.
My career thus far has fortuitously spanned the entire revolution in computing, from “boat anchor” PCs to something so much more advanced it seems to be almost another beast. If asked 40 years ago what I might imagine computers would be capable of in 2022, I’d certainly have worked out that they’d be faster and smaller and cheaper – Moore’s Law had already made that clear. Yet if someone had suggested to me that we’d all be using social media on pocket supercomputers to keep each other minutely aware of our random brainwaves, I’d have thought them mad.
Asking people to situate themselves in a world 40 years hence seems a futile task – even the wisest futurist cannot know the shape of the world in four decades’ time. Yet drawing our attention to that world is perhaps the most consequential act a futurist can perform. To imagine that future – to imagine oneself in that future – is to think differently about that future, and thinking differently about that future shapes that future. In a bit of feedback both Norbert Wiener and Werner Heisenberg would appreciate, the act of calling attention to the future changes it.
Looking away from ourselves and into that world of 2062, we all have similar questions: How will I live? What will be my quality of life? What will life be like for myself, my family, my friends, my nation – and the planet? This is where the future changes; things that only a few moments ago seemed unfathomably far away become immediate and tangible. Because our choices today shape our world tomorrow, it is possible to imagine the path connecting this present to that future, and – in our imaginations – it is even possible to walk that path. One set of choices sets us on one path, while another set of choices sets us on another.
Although we can never know precisely where these paths lead, we can reflect on the consequential nature of our own decisions, imagining how those choices – multiplied by the nine-and-a-half billion of us that there will be in 2062 – shape our collective future. It’s a bit of imagination we should all explore, yet something that almost never happens, not because the future is scary or even particularly unknowable – but because we haven’t thought to ask the question. It’s long past time for us to bring that long view into our day-to-day lives, letting our imaginations scan the horizon while our feet remain firmly fixed to the ground.
Native Americans encourage their communities to “consider the seventh generation” when entertaining any decision. We could learn from this, looking to our own futures in order to gain the wisdom we need to make the best decisions today for the world we want to enjoy tomorrow.
Mark Pesce invented the technology for 3D on the Web, has written seven books, was for seven years a judge on the ABC's "The New Inventors", founded postgraduate programs at USC and AFTRS, holds an honorary appointment at Sydney University, is a multiple-award-winning columnist for The Register, pens another column for IEEE Spectrum, and is a professional futurist and public speaker. Pesce hosts both the award-winning "The Next Billion Seconds" and "This Week in Startups Australia" podcasts.