Talking about looking at past and future things

I’m talking with Andy King, from the soon-to-be-opened Museum of Bristol, this Saturday at the Arnolfini. We’re going to be “In Conversation” as part of their Futurology programme, and I think it should be really interesting. I hope so, anyway, as it’s a public event.

I mailed Andy with some thoughts about what we could talk about, and I’m going to put them here as well, in case we don’t get round to them: I think some of them are things I’d like to follow up.

So, I’ve been thinking about what history and futures studies have in common, and what makes them different, and it seems to me that in each case there’s a kind of common-sense assumption about the discipline (if that’s not too grand a word for futures studies) and the way it works that might not be how it seems to those who try and practise it.

For example, a common-sense view of history might be: things actually happened a certain way in the past, and the historian’s job is to find out what that was as accurately as possible. But actually, my sense is that historians are very finely attuned to the idea that there as many pasts as there are historians, and each age’s view of what happened before it says as much about the dominant ideas of the time as it says about previous events.

Similarly, a common-sense view of the practice of looking at the future might hold that things will turn out a certain way and no other, and that if we know enough about present circumstances we can say confidently what that might be. But actually, most respectable futures practitioners would say that dominant ideas about the what the future might be say more about the attitudes and assumptions of the age in which they emerged than about the way things might be in the future, and that it’s more useful to consider a range of possible alternative futures.

So there’s something both have in common, perhaps – trying to counter dominant popular ideas about what each discipline is for – and a difference – futures studies might focus more on examining alternatives.

Or perhaps another talking point could be around the way time is represented in each. I don’t know very much about how historians discuss the representation of time, but from the perspective of someone trying to talk usefully about the future it’s been fascinating to see the ways different models of how time works shape conversations about the future (sometimes ‘the future’ is waiting for us, presumably having started at the other end of time’s arrow and travelled backwards to meet us; at others, it never arrives, being perpetually deferred to be invoked as a call to action in the present).

Ethics might be another interesting area of discussion: how far ought we, as people who talk about people who for various reasons are not with us at the present moment, whether because they’re dead or not yet born, to extend the respect we show living people to people of the past or the future? If rights to privacy, respect, understanding and so on are universal, shouldn’t they be extended through time? But is there a difference in the degree to which they’re entitled to such rights between people who have lived and people have yet to live?

Another useful area to think about might be to consider what each discipline offers to society: what use is it to talk about the past or the future? Are there different arguments for each, or are there general arguments to do with enlarging our understanding of the way in which people and societies work that support both?

We could move from that into thinking about the ways each act as a force of authority within society: the weight carried by ‘tradition’, the effect of ‘government forecasts’, the self-fulfilling prophecies of science-fiction and the ways historical dramas rewrite and refine national identities.

There’s maybe something to be said about the balance between detail and timescale, the ways in which it’s harder perhaps to be detailed the further one moves from the present (until you get far enough away to say what you like). Or a discussion about the way each generation thinks it’s the first to have ever lived in the present (those beforehand must have known they lived in history, and the ones after us must surely know that they live in the future). Or maybe just a recognition that both of them are attempts to answer questions that lie at the heart of trying to understand our place in the world: asking “what happened? What will happen?” is a fundamentally human thing to do.

Let me know how appealing any of these conversations are, or what alternatives we could consider. We could do worse, I suppose, by just telling each other what we do all day. I’d love to know more about your
work.

So there we are – that’s what we’ll talking about, I hope, for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon. Come along!

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