University of Modena-Reggio Emilia, Italy
The future is not there (yet), but it fascinates and engages us. Future reality exists today only as imagination, and no one can know what will actually happen—but this also means that the future is open and we can act on it.
The open future of our society is a promise and a threat. Since the future is not yet decided, we can use it to our advantage. This is the positive side. The future offers opportunities, for example chances for profit and improvement. If we act wisely, tomorrow we will be in a better condition, thanks to what we do and decide today, for example investing in a new kind of product or a new technology that will become popular in a few years – and in the future we will rejoice the advantages.
However, an open future also means risk, actually non-eliminable risk. This is the negative side. Since we do not know what will happen (and cannot know it, because the future we are addressing does not exist yet), things can always go wrong and the opportunity can turn into a loss. It can happen that our condition will actually be worse, as a consequence of our actions and our decisions. Thus the product we were relying on can turn out to be unsuccessful, and we do not have money for other investments any more.
Facing an unknown future is extremely complicated, every decision is uncertain and difficult. This complexity, however, further increases if we take into account another dimension of the relationship with the future: The strange idea that the future has already begun, and we feel its breath down our neck. We must hurry to keep up, being nevertheless always late, because we can only be in the present—that is, too far behind.
Taken literally, this formulation is obviously nonsense. The future cannot have already begun, and if it did, it would no longer be the future. That it is so widespread, however, shows that there is something about it. What does one mean when one says that the future has already begun?
First one signals the awareness that there is a link between what we do today and what will happen tomorrow. The future has already begun because the conditions of what will happen tomorrow are already given today. We build in our present the past we will have to face tomorrow. This is a problem and a concern: The future does not arise by itself, but depends on our present decisions and actions. In a sense we have the responsibility for the future, and would like to build today the right present for the future we wish.
But we can never be sure of it. What will be possible in the future depends on what we do today, and we cannot control how. It can happen that we will regret our behavior, because in the future we will be in a worse condition, knowing that the fault is ours and goes back to the decisions we are taking today. The most disturbing aspect, though, is that we already know it now: the conditions by which the future offers us opportunities are the same that create risks. The open future has already begun.
To confront this enigmatic situation we must abandon any idea of the future as a neutral space: the ancient idea that future “things” are already decided, but also the romantic idea of the future as an indeterminate space of possibilities (in the future everything is possible). It is not true: in the future will only be possible what we have prepared and made possible – but nevertheless we cannot control it, and therefore it remains uncertain. The future depends on what we do today, but it will be surprising nevertheless (actually precisely because of this).
At any time, what we have (what is there) is only the present future: the image of the future that we can have today, when this future does not exist yet and is only in our imagination, in our hopes or in our projects, led by calculations, statistics, historical data and various kinds of forecasts. What then actually occurs is the future present: not an imagination but a concrete reality, located at a future date, that today is still not there and that we cannot know.
This future reality is not independent of present predictions (in this sense, the future has already begun) but it doesn’t have to conform to them. The future is affected by the present, in the sense that it depends on what we do today – but this dependence can also go in the negative. It can happen for example that present indicators make us expect an increase in the price of a commodity, and this expectation contributes to the present image on the future. What later actually occurs, however, it is that the price of that commodity decreases because everyone turned to alternative goods, foreseeing the price increase – or increases even more because speculators move the price upwards. You cannot know in advance how the future will react to present predictions (how the future present will react to the present future) – you can only know that what we do will have consequences. Present future and future present are different, therefore the future is always surprising – and therefore it continues to fascinate us.
How do we achieve in the present the past our future will need? How do we take into account in our decisions the responsibility for the future, when we do not know nor can know how it will happen? In fact, we only know that it will be different from anything we can expect today, because it also includes our expectations, which have consequences. How can we plan the unknowable?
To plan and to design is not useless, even and especially if we expect that things will go differently than our predictions. But we need a flexible and circular idea of planning: one acts and plans to have an orientation towards the future, not to predict or determine it. What happens confirms or disappoints our expectations, and then we can learn something about the world and about ourselves. As organization theory maintains, first you do something and then you find out what its meaning was. Plans structure the unknowable future, which does not happen as a complete surprise, but as an expected surprise that becomes informative. The open future is a resource – for those who are prepared.
Elena Esposito teaches Sociology of Communication at the University of Modena-Reggio Emilia, Italy. Esposito works with the theory of social systems, especially on issues related to the social management of time, including memory and forgetting, fashion and transience, probability calculus, fiction and the use the time in finance. Her current research projects focus on the possibility and forms of forgetting on the web, on a sociology of algorithms, and on the proliferation of rankings and ratings for the management of information. Esposito published many works on the theory of social systems, media theory, memory theory and sociology of financial markets. Among them The Future of Futures: The Time of Money in Financing and Society, 2011; Die Fiktion der wahrscheinlichen Realität, 2007; Die Verbindlichkeit des Vorübergehenden. Paradoxien der Mode, 2004; Soziales Vergessen: Formen und Medien des Gedächtnisses der Gesellschaft, 2002.
Banner Image: “And A And B And Not” is a foldable paravent built of dichroic colored glass segments by the designer Camilla Richter, 2012. (Photo by courtesy of Camilla Richter.)
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