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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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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Garry G January 24, 2009, 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…


  • John Mahaffie January 26, 2009, 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, 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.

  • Paul June 1, 2017, 2:42 pm

    Here is a perfect example of Presentism:

    In  the 1830's.. according to the laws of the land that were established before the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith was even born…. this is what we find:

    The age of consent for marriage under English common law was TEN. United States law did not raise the age of consent until the late nineteenth century. In Joseph Smith’s day, most states still had the declared age of consent to be TEN! Some had raised it to TWELVE, and Delaware had lowered it to SEVEN!    (See Melina McTigue, “Statutory Rape Law Reform in Nineteenth Century Maryland: An Analysis of Theory and Practical Change,” (2002), accessed 5 Feb 2005)

    In 1880 (nearly 40 years after Joseph Smith’s death), the minimal age of female consent in Illinois was age 10. The following U. S. states (and territories) identified their minimal age of female consent at age 10 in 1880: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. (Source 1)

    The following states identified their ages of female consent at 12 in 1880: Arizona, District of Columbia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. (Source 1)

    Outside the U. S., Denmark’s minimum age for female consent was 12 in 1880–and still 12 in 1920. Same ages and dates for Portugal, Scotland, and Spain. By 1880 England had advanced the minimal age from 12 to 13. The age of consent in Canada and Australia in 1880 was also 12. By 1920 Canada had advanced the age to 14. In Russia the minimum age in 1880 was 10. It advanced to 14 by 1920. (Source 1)

    So.. to look upon Joseph Smith for having married a 14 year old girl.. WITH the consent of her parents… as something that was wrong… without taking into consideration the standards and attitudes of HIS day.. is wrong on the part of people today who condemn him.

I'd love to hear your thoughts