What's Your Future?
How do you envision the future? Are we on the verge of dystopia? Soon to be transformed by accelerating change? Ready to strap on the jet packs to pick up our food pills? Settling in for a long struggle?
It struck me recently, while talking with my friend Jacob Davies, that the relative success of WorldChanging and similar projects could be linked to the re-invigoration of a worldview combining optimism (a belief that success is possible, and can be broadly achieved) and realism (a belief that global processes are imperfect and cannot be perfected, and change happens through compromise and evolution). Jacob gave some further thought to this idea, and elaborated a bit on its implications in a comment at the Making Light weblog. The combination of belief sets -- optimism vs. pessimism, realism vs. idealism -- offer us a matrix for describing divergent ways of looking at the future.
It's important to note first off that there isn't a strict correlation here between politics and foresight worldview. Both premillennial dispensationalists (the Left Behind, "rapture ready" types) and traditional revolutionary Marxists would be situated in the lower-right Idealist-Pessimist box, for example. It wouldn't be hard to find similar pairs of contrasting ideologies for the other boxes.
Instead, let's populate the matrix with examples of differing approaches to understanding a changing world.
In the upper left, Optimist-Realist, we can put WorldChanging and its fellow-travelers -- success is possible, but requires a clear understanding of problems and a willingness to adapt to meet changing conditions (use new tools, work with new allies, etc.). I put myself in this category, too (unsurprisingly), and I suspect that a large portion of the new generation of people doing foresight work would call this box home.
In the upper right, Pessimist-Realist, probably the most familiar manifestation would be the cyberpunk sub-genre of science fiction, where the world is complex, change is messy, and the best we can hope for is staving off the worst of it for our own (likely small) group. As Jacob noted, many traditional environmentalists fall into this box; I'd also put various critics of technology such as Neil Postman or Bill McKibben in this category.
In the lower right, Pessimist-Idealist, we can find (as noted) the religious revolutionaries, be they Left Behind-type Christians, Caliphate-fixated Muslims, or Third Temple-building Jews, all ready to wash away the unbelievers and enemies in order to transform the world. I would also put the "back to the Pleistocene" Deep Ecologists here, too, the folks who think that the only way to save the planet is to wipe out 9/10ths of the population.
Finally, in the lower left, Optimist-Idealist, are those who see a transcendent, transformative future available to all. The most visible manifestation of this worldview can be found in those who see the advent of a technological Singularity fixing the world's problems and giving us all near-infinite knowledge and power. I don't put all Transhumanist-type folks here; James Hughes is an excellent example of someone who sees both a potential for technology-driven transformation and the need to work to make sure the benefits extend beyond a small group of elites. But anyone who has read Ray Kurzweil's books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near knows how readily the Singularitarians can slip into millennialist language.
For now, this matrix gives us a taxonomy of futurism, but it may prove to be a useful tool for understanding heretofore unexpected alliances (such as the growing anti-technology coalition between some environmentalists and some religious conservatives).
Where would you put yourself? What does this matrix miss?