The long and short future

🎵 In the year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive 🎵 

Projects such as the Clock of the Long Now, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and deep time Nuclear Semiotics work with time horizons of millenia. These are about changing our time perspective in response to challenges created by humanity such as environmental problems and the demands of long term nuclear waste storage. These come at a time when the tools humanity set up that institute a long term consciousness, religion and orthodoxy, have been swept aside by the Smiley People Who Know Everything. The moral obligations current humans have to future society are up for grabs. What costs might we be unknowingly or uncaringly imposing on them? Maybe the only obligation you have is to live your best life. In the Douglas Adams short story Young Zaphod Plays it Safe a way of mining the past for energy is discovered. Everyone is pretty pleased with themselves at this innovation: energy from the one place where no-one will kick up a fuss. Too late they discover that mining the past creates a problem for the present, as the future is doing the same thing to them. People will only really be motivated to act, he implies, if they have something at stake. 

So what can be employed to give us something to care about? One answer is the human delight in narrative, which explains why science fiction authors made such a contribution o the long term semiotics discussions that have come about as a result of the need to store long term nuclear waste, with a time horizon of about 10,000 years. Can a message be dispatched, interpreted, understood and acted on over a timescale greater than human civilisation? If we create a story of ourselves as heroically saving the future while also leaving a bloody big monument to it, we night be bothered to make an actual effort. The content is tricky however. It must convince the future people not to dig up this particular patch of ground and also convince the present people that it will do that. The paradox is that we might like to leave some monuments to ourselves, but any monument is attractive. Any warning sign looks like a treasure map, or just ceases to mean anything, given enough time. Gregory Benford points to problems of expert conformity and false certainty in deep time estimation, as in any enterprise.

The coming of the … society

The …isation hypothesis

That is certainly the case in future world talk in sociology. How good has sociology been at identifying valid future trends and self-correcting in the face of evidence? And can we not talk about this please? Let’s start with one of the worst charges on the docket, the secularisation hypothesis. Basically: as societies become modern, they become secular. It is pretty much not true and like most failed predictions extrapolates from a small set of cases in one moment to a general trend about societal evolution. Demographic transition is a more solid prediction, and is notable for largely existing outside mainstream sociology. Yup, everyone is getting older apart from the religo-crazies, a fact we would all just rather ignore thank you.

Lots of sociology futures now name a type of society coming into being – the metric society, the screen society, the network society, the algorithmic/platform society. Or they seek out an organising metaphor like fluidity or liquidity, using it a characteristic that in some way is central to the transformed social life and which people will have to live with. Usually the argument is presented in a motte and bailey style. It is asserted that such and such a characteristic is fluid, meaning without form or structure. Then it is pointed out that it does have form and structure, at which point the argument shifts to say that fluidity just means flexible or changing, network just means connected etc. No books have been titled ‘The Rigid Society’ or ‘Inflexible, Untroubled Gender’ or ‘The Coming Non-Crisis of Capitalism’. The traffic is all one way, which tells you how detached it is from empirical data but not from the incentives of academic publishing.

While sociology and future writing love their metaphors, they do not love their humans. Humans get a bad rep in sociology, behavioural economics and social psychology. They are usually criticised for their short termism,  various cognitive biases and a general inability to consider severe threats and fantastic opportunities that are not immediately apparent and the general set of cognitive limits I am confident nobody ever called ‘Gidden’s Paradox’. I am not sure humans suffer from the short term perspective often claimed. Giddens, the Nudgers and others speak confidently from a future that has not happened yet, and condemn humans for being insufficiently panicked at something which we have very little capacity to do much about. It is irksome because of the tendency for expert groups and elites to form their own consensus and anathematise any doubters, and the lack of humility when they turn out yet again to be wrong. 

“In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)” by Zager and Evans, RCA Victor, 1969.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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