Leapfrogging into the Future
I am a jaded student of the future.
I began my studies in the mid 1970s, when I grew enamored with the works of futurists like Herman Kahn and Alvin Toffler. I became a card-carrying member of the World Future Society and took courses in social and political philosophy, scenario construction and planning. I even did my dissertation on a critical analysis of futurism in education. At the time I was an intellectual captive of academic Marxism and thought that practice needed to be grounded in a defensible theory of social change.
Having spent the previous five years as a rock and roll guitarist, I don’t know why I thought that. I had learned on the road to make things up as I went along and adapt to whatever was going down at the time. Only academics think social change should be any different.
Thirty years later I’m still thinking about the future, but not in the same way. For one thing, I’m more skeptical about what passes for big ideas.
In Arizona, the big idea right now is biotechnology and “leapfrogging” over the competition by investing in research and attracting the “creative class.” Apparently this will result in Arizona being a cool and hip place in the future, and the right kind of people will want to come here.
Presumably these will not be people who will give you the finger on the freeway for driving too slow, or Wal-Mart shoppers who live on the edges of the desert in tacky stucco houses with a water feature.
Certainly they won’t be the Lexus cowboys who snake out of Scottsdale at 6:30 a.m. with their cell phones and lattes to carve up the desert at an acre an hour, or the hordes of construction workers, back office service reps and convenience store day trippers who think high culture is watching “Survivor” on TV or scoring a pass to a VIP tent at the FBR Open.
No, these will be people who will be inventing the future with their own big ideas about progress. They don’t want to just live in the world but to change it, and for the better, to be sure. They will have big grants and contracts and start high tech businesses. They will live in lofts downtown and ride the light rail. They will be thoughtful and tolerant, and support rational planning and public policy.
Most of all, they will be well off. Why else would you be a leapfrogger?
I’m skeptical because most of today’s big ideas about the future are tired riffs on yesterday’s idea of progress, which is the expansion of human potential, opportunity and freedom through economic growth, scientific knowledge and the power of technology.
Let’s be frank here. We’re just recycling the past. The old is suddenly new again.
Look around the world, and what do you see? Those who embrace this vision of the future, and those who reject it. Locked in a struggle for power, identity and meaning, each side is incapable of imagining another way.
All great shifts in human history – the birth of classical civilization, Judaic culture, Islamic culture, the Renaissance, Enlightenment and the Industrial Age – were preceded by what the Dutch historian Frederick Polak referred to as “daring imaginative leaps” that rekindled the social imagination and motivated people to undergo the pain required to work for a future better than the present.
In my view, a vision of greater and greater scientific and technological progress, as attractive as it is, is not the imaginative leap that will propel us toward a better future. Neither is any of the variants of fixed beliefs and immutable truth that fuel the reaction against it. We need a new language, a new way of framing the future, to break out of the ideological impasse that chokes the collective social imagination today.
My big idea is that maybe there are no big ideas. Personally, I am inclined to think of growth these days more in terms of letting go than in acquiring more. The older I get, the more I think of progress in terms of the refrain from the song,
Nature Boy: “The greatest thing you ever can learn is to love and be loved in return.”
It sounds corny, but it’s what keeps me grounded in the present.
And unless we stay grounded in the present, it is impossible to imagine how we might change it for the better.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.