Presentism is the tendency people have in studying and writing about history to apply today’s values to a prior time. I always noticed this on the TV Show M*A*S*H, which, to me, blended Vietnam-era sensibilities with a Korean War story line. Presentism is one of the biggest dangers in historical analysis, since it can lead to interpretations of past behavior that are simply wrong.
When we explore the future, we can fall into the same trap. One tendency is to look at a single dimension of change, for example, the commercialization and proliferation of a new technology, holding the rest of the world constant. We get today’s world with a twist. We might, through this, have a view of our world with photovoltaic energy, otherwise unchanged, or our world with $500 per barrell oil, otherwise unchanged. So many other things will have also happened that will shape our values, attitudes, behavior, and what’s happening around us. The world is never “otherwise unchanged.”
Another tendency–which is extremely hard to avoid–is to look at future possibilities with today’s attitudes. Routinely, in my work as a futurist, I hear people say that the next wave of computer and communication technology is cold and impersonal. They say, “where’s the human contact?”. But when that next wave of technology arrives, for example when we got instant messaging and mobile telephony, we found that more people were in touch with others, more of the time.
If we take a “one trend future” approach, our efforts will not be adequate. We are likely to overlook countertrends, amplifying trends, social forces, cultural forces, and so on. The ongoing effort in foresight is to try to understand how the future might shape up against a backdrop of social forces and conditions undergoing constant change. That is hard to do, and is surely a task we can never truly complete. But we have to try.
A frank acknowledgement of our “presentism” in discussions with colleagues, and even to ourselves, can go a long way towards avoiding narrow explorations of the future, and can keep us sharp and attentive to the wide sweep of forces of change we need to pay attention to. So ‘fess up, admit your limitations, then fight your way past them. Don’t be a presentist when you need to be a futurist.
Molecular biologist Deric Bownds, in Deric Bownds’ Mindblog, has written insightfully on this topic. [Link]