The Trouble with Nowhere

No one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. — Kevin Kelly

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source: Patrick Regan

My work pivots on futures: conceiving what may come to pass in the months and years ahead. While I am not trying to draw a course on a hypothetical map unrolling in time, I am certainly waving my hands at what may be coming, telling stories about new and hopefully better ways of living and working.

And there lies a problem.

One of the central difficulties of writing about the future — or even trends leading to the future — is the linkage in popular thought between contemplating futures and utopianism: an unrealistic and starry-eyed belief in impractical social theories.

I’m with Kevin Kelly on this, who said we are avoiding the future. We are stuck in the short now, handcuffed to short-termism, and stunted by narrow horizons.

We need to colonize the future ourselves, we must make our own maps of that territory, maps that show us as inhabitants and inheritors, making new economics, breaking with the deals and disasters of the past, and committing again to each other: to be a community and not consumers, to be partners and not competitors, to be from the future and beyond the past.

Utopia is (more less) Greek for nowhere, and therefore the term represents an impossible state, an unrealizable order, and therefore the (supposed) wise will avoid any involvement with utopian thought. And by association, they reject any talk of futures, unless the ‘future’ is an slavish extension of the present state, or a dystopic scenario of collapse.

Kenneth Boulding, the economist that first suggested the metaphor of Spaceship Earth, argued that we need to talk of posterity, not the future. He wrote, in 1966,

There is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.

I wrote several years ago on this topic:

Boulding teaches us that referring to posterity instead of the future leads to a dramatic change in perspective. ‘Posterity’ implies continuity of society and the obligations of those living now to future inheritors, a living commitment, while ‘the future’ is a distant land peopled by strangers to whom we have no ties.

Boulding is very much a modern man, a product of the first half of the 20th century, when concern for posterity was a duty of the elite. In the postmodern era, posterity was mined, exploited for all it held, and all that was left was ‘the future’. And now, at the outset of the postnormal, ‘the future’ is just a pile of slag left behind by people we don’t remember, just a pile of sci fi stills and economist’s powerpoints with the lines all trending in the wrong direction.

We have reached the point that Boulding wrote about: our leaders — our culture — provide us no images of the future other than dystopia and decline. We need to colonize the future ourselves, we must make our own maps of that territory, maps that show us as inhabitants and inheritors, making new economics, breaking with the deals and disasters of the past, and committing again to each other: to be a community and not consumers, to be partners and not competitors, to be from the future and beyond the past.

Like Kevin Kelly, I believe we need to push for a realizable but better world, a protopia:

I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.

Today we’ve become so aware of the downsides of innovations, and so disappointed with the promises of past utopias, that we now find it hard to believe even in protopia — that tomorrow will be better than today.

So this is the premise and promise of this publication, Work Futures: to envision a new and (at least slightly) better way of work, and to bring together a community of practitioners who are ready to counter the trouble with nowhere. To move beyond the past, and colonize the future.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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