The Sex Pistols, strictly speaking, were right: there is no future, for you or for me. The future, by definition, does not exist. “The future,” whether you capitalize it or not, is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, a sketch for a mad contraption that may or may not work. “The future” is a story we tell, a narrative of hope, dread or wonder. And it’s a story that, for a while now, we’ve been pretty much living without.
A hundred years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the future” is going to happen? Do you believe there will be a human beings around to witness, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about two hundred years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the unfinished horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the next thousand years?
I was surprised at just how long it had been since I had given any thought to the state of the world a thousand years hence. I don’t know what happened to the future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived.
Some days when I pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, transnational corporatocracy, reality television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century, in Aldous Huxley’s vision, was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it.
Meanwhile, the dwindling number of Huxley’s items remaining on that list: interplanetary colonization, sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through brain-download or transplant, a global government (fascist or enlightened) aren’t too far away. And because this has been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in blockbuster films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words.
This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our loss of belief or interest in the future, which has in turn produced a collective cultural failure to imagine that future, any future, beyond the rim of a couple of centuries. The future was represented so often and for so long, in the terms and characteristic styles of so many historical periods that at some point the idea of the future—along with the cultural appetite for it—came itself to feel like something historical, outmoded, no longer viable or attainable.
Like most I fear the end is always looming, whether it be due to global warming with its floods, storms, desertification, or the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange. Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now. If you had told me, when I was eight, that as an adult of the future I would feel uncertain in terms of our eventual survival, or even that sometimes I would feel so disparages to think the world would better off without human beings in it, I suspect you would have broken that young heart.
Yet if you ask my eight-year-old daughter about the future, she pretty much thinks the world is never going to end, and that’s it. She sees herself as living on the first page, of the first paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book. When I talk with her about the future, she listens very carefully. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” She asks. I tell her without hesitation, “there will, I hope.” I then stand back watch her mind working – or rather drawing – this world with a beating heart of hopefulness and the silent stirring of her brilliant imagination.
What I see is this: in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether we know it or not, on the future. We are betting on our children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 3,012.
For children, who are more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, next birthday, are relying on this.
We may not predict or measure out the passage of hope, into the unknown future, of the future race of creatures that might help build it. So what can we do to revive and restore the whole idea of the future? How might we start thinking about the future again, to the degree if not in quite the way same way that we used to do, and how do we reintroduce the notion that we don’t just bequeath the future, though we do of course? We start, perhaps, with understanding and accepting the responsibilities necessary to give what every child needs to, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it.
You see if you don’t believe in the future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there, to be alive, a thousand years from now then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection to accomplish it is only limited by the imagination of those creatures creating it. Besides, I don’t see how anybody can force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.