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The future is a foreign country; they do things differently there

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.–L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953

That’s a thoughtful and useful quote. And we can also truly say, “The future is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

In considering a future time, you have to reckon with a whole thing: a complete culture, marketplace, society, community, industry, and all the things that shape them. Too often we don’t, we take up one change that we think is powerful and important, and leave most everything else like it is.

So we end up with of view of the future that is too much today. But daily life in 2030 isn’t just daily life in 2012 with genetic engineering added, or implantable eye cameras, for example.

Your best thinking on the future is naturally going to be shaped by what future possibilities might mean to you, as if you used a time machine to visit a future year, and reported back on what you found. But in that future, you would be changed, too. Your interests, habits, experience, and expectations would be different. There is much that changes slowly in human society, and our cultural underpinnings are some of the slowest things of all to change, but even culture changes. And the further out you go, the more that future will be a truly foreign country.

There’s an element of presentism in a lot of work on the future that is rooted in our tendency to hold most things constant while exploring one change. So it helps if you let that future be a little more like a country foreign to you, that you imagine walking around in it, noticing how people live, what they do for fun, how they socialize, how they work, what they talk about and how they do so, and so on. Take notice of differences, prepare to see new things. Be puzzled.


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