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SEEING THE FUTURE

January 7th, 2023

 

The practice of visualizing a goal apparently has enough validity behind it that the idea survives. But then again there’s plenty of patently ridiculous, fairy-tale-like ideas and practices that have perpetuated for centuries and even millennia. So mere survival is not necessarily a great metric for assessing the utility and ultimate efficacy of an idea or practice. But for the sake of exploration here, let’s simply take it as a correct assumption that visualizing the future creates a self-fullfilling prophecy and it does have a meaningful and directive effect on how the future actually turns out.

 

This assumption is definitely correct on a hyper-local level: We feel hungry, and we visualize going to the kitchen and making a sandwich, we imagine the particulars of the sandwich, and even have feedback loops while visualizing the future. Will that combo taste good? Nah, swap this ingredient for that, add this. Ah, perfect. And then with the perfect sandwich envisioned, we get to work.

 

Does this same exact thing exist on a much larger scale?

 

A fair question, but that’s actually not the best question to ask about this topic. A more interesting question is: given that we don’t know whether it’s a correct assumption or not, how do we hedge our bets?

 

Is it safer to assume that it’s true?

 

Well there’s two possible cases here. If we assume it’s not true and we are careless with the way we envision the future, and imagine a bad one, and it turns out our assumption is wrong, then we end up with a bad future.

 

The other case is if we assume it is true, and given the obvious incentives here, imagine a great future. If the assumption is correct we end up with a great future. If the assumption is wrong, then it’s a crap shoot whether the future turns out good or bad, which still leaves us open to the upside of potentially having a good future because it’s still in the cards.

 

So even if we can’t verify whether visualizing the future has a causal impact, we can still be pretty sure that the best course of action is to assume that our consistent visions of the future are the more likely outcomes.

 

Now let’s consider all the dystopian movies and stories we have coursing through the cultural bloodstream of this planet. The Terminator movies, the Matrix, the Black Mirror series… Putting aside the fact that we are really good at imagining horrible outcomes, what does this thick dystopian thread in our collective imagination mean for our collective future?

 

Just the other day I came across a post where someone pointed out the fact that all our dystopian movies seemed to becoming true.

 

Is this just correlation? Or is causation perhaps also at work here?

 

Again, given that we can’t determine for certain if causation exists or not, which is the safer assumption to make?

 

Sam McRoberts, a friend of mine, has a great way to phrase what I see as our current predicament. It’s a kind of mantra that resonates with me the more I think about it, and the more I write.

 

Change the stories, change the world.

 

If we started producing interesting utopian visions of the future that celebrated what we can and might do as a species, would our collective direction change?

 

Again, what’s the safer assumption in this case?

 

Also, what’s the harm in trying?

 

It’s a pet-ponderance of mine whether the task of producing a positive story comes across as somehow, cheesy or unrealistic. Authentic artists are generally imagined as tortured souls, and what kind of tortured soul produces an interesting utopian vision of the future? It’s somewhat a contradiction in terms, is it not?

 

S.I. Hayakawa thought about this topic and pinned advertising as the reason why artists who wish to be seen as “authentic” started avoiding the cheerier subjects of life. Before the rise of advertising we had sonnets that celebrated the best of life. Now we seem left only with cheery jingles to goad us into spending money. The irony of that dystopian shift certainly isn’t lost here..

 

The Lucilius Parables that appear on Tinkered Thinking are a consistent attempt to package a quick and pleasant experience that hopefully gets someone to think a bit differently. To consider the world in a new way. And often the effort is very deliberately an attempt to imagine a positive utopian version of the future.

 

Change the stories, change the world.

 

There’s enough negativity. We aren’t untalented at imagining the worse because in some very real ways we’re probably hardwired to look for the negative. Avoiding the dangers of the natural world is evolutionarily baked into the way our brains are set up.

 

But: the chief innovation that evolution has also given us is the ability to mindfully reflect and choose otherwise. We can self-train in imaginative and novel ways that seem unusual to the natural world of animals.

 

We can shift specializations in ways that a bee can’t even dream about.

 

Change the stories, change the world.

 

The other double-edged innovation evolution has given us is that we are creatures that operate on stories. Our human OS is not at all like a computer, nor are we like animals despite our fundamental roots in their kingdom. We run on stories, and the question is again: are we running on a good story or a bad story?

 

What story is culture telling you?

 

What story are you offering to our collective culture?

 

What story do you tell yourself?


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