Presentism

by John Mahaffie on January 23, 2009

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]

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Garry G January 24, 2009 at 10:44 am

As always— wonderful post John…

I’d love to come up with more examples of Presentism (Past-to-Present) that will resonate with people. It’s always nice to open the mind toward the future by reminding people that it was once opened to change before…

Second question is — are you developing a set of questions – or a process tool- that we can develop that asks people to walk through list of sideline assumptions that they are assuming won’t change. (Probably a hard thing to do…)

But I think what is ringing through my head after reading this post is — how important it is for us to bring values and culture into this conversation about the future.

I must read more about the phase change transitions of values in society…

Thanks!

John Mahaffie January 26, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Garry, glad to provoke thought, that’s the whole point! You’ve given me some serious and potentially valuable things to think about. I’ll do so. The need to bring a focus on values and culture, and worldviews, and biases, and so on, into foresight work is clear. And its a two-way street. In exploring and communicating about the future, we first confront our own views, then those of our audience. It’s damn hard to get it all done well.

nickgogerty April 14, 2009 at 1:02 pm

good post. ethnocentrism either romanticizes a past cultural narrative or picks events out of context to exemplify a behaviour today. I suggest to friends that their culture 30 years ago would feel like visiting a different country in terms of values and behaviours. For Americans a trip Canada, not that the values are similar, but that the strange familiarity would put their own culture into context.

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