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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?


I'm definitely upper-left.

It would be interesting to know how much people can move in that matrix. Are you basically stuck in one of the four corners because of your temperament?

Obviously, religious fanatics and such are probably pretty static, but I'm wondering about the average person...

Jamais credits me with too much but I do like that diagram.

It's self-serving, of course. Those in the 3 other quadrants deny that optimist-realist is even possible, or that you have to sell-out, or that it constitutes wasting time on non-issues. All of which are sometimes valid criticisms.

I hadn't really thought of the pessimist-idealist as encompassing the "kill off the human race to save the planet" types but yeah.

I know that I certainly moved quite sharply from pessimist-realist - with a decent scientific understanding of environmental issues, but not much faith that they could be solved ahead of them becoming critical - to the optimist-realist column right around the time I went to college and started looking at the existing body of environmental law & policy, which turned out to be quite extensive, effective, and even well-supported. That was pre-W.P.E. & his party, whose disregard for all aspects of effective policy hasn't advanced environmental protections at all, but I have hope that future Presidents & Congresses will return to something like sanity on the policy front.

I think the key combination to convince someone is to 1) get them to believe that environmental problems are real & serious (for pollution this is a given nowadays, but global warming (at least pre-Katrina) still requires some persuasion), 2) that the problem can be remedied, even if we delay starting, but that the difficulty increases as we delay, and 3) that addressing the problem will not cost a lot of extra money or jobs or convenience.

The last is the hardest sell, I think. The point is not "We can fix this by doing nothing" but "We can fix this by making things different, but not actually worse". When someone says the solution to reducing oil consumption & CO2 production in the US is the elimination of suburbs right now, you immediately lose most of your audience. But if it's replacing the vehicle fleet with fuel-efficient cars over time, and providing better public transit, and gradually increasing density in the cities, it's an incremental set of changes that sound practical, not-unpleasant, and gradual.

I consider exercises such as these to be well worthwhile in allowing a greater freedom of expression. The only caveat I have is in assuming complete linear indepedence.

As you've probably already noted, David Brin has been performing a similar exercise in providing multiple axes in expressing a wider variety of political alignnment.

In addition to the traditional left-right (common vs individual [property] rights) he defines up-down (rule by decree vs concensus) and in-out (nature vs nurture). (I've been quipping that this leaves me down and out! I guess I'm now washed up and left in your view;-)

The axes you've defined (optimist vs pessimist) and (realist vs idealist) seem to be distinct from Brin's, and perhaps the two systems could be combined.

I think I'm kinda skating around on the plot like a water drop in a pan of hot oil. I want to be in the upper/middle-left region all the time (although a part of me is foolishly inclined to the lower-left "save me, singularity!" sector), but a few days of exposure to Joe Public can send me skittering over to the right (eg "we *could* make it, but only if a huge number of people suddenly wake up and smell the coffee").

What we really need are good and simple ways to convince the average man that: a) there are ways we can pull ourselves off of the runaway train; b) that it's in their best interests (and that of their descendants) to play their part; and c) that the whole notion of nation-states are a large part of the problem.

All the fighting over territory and resources and idealogies is baffling to me; how long have we known that the world is a sphere? Where exactly do they think they can run to to get away from everything? Unless we start to see ourselves as one single race (human), there's always going to this ridiculous tug-of-war BS stopping us from getting together and sorting things out. For example, a lot of right-wing folk seem to view the pollution indexes of India and China as justification for doing nothing about that of their own nations. [petulant]"Well, *they're* still doing it, why should we stop?[/petulant]

Everyone seems to think that 'we' should work towards a cleaner greener future, but very few people seem to realise that the sacrifices have to start at their own doorsteps. {sigh}

P.S. The unstructured and rambling nature of this comment probably goes some way to indicate my lack of success in trying to convince people to 'think futurist', which is why I read blogs like Worldchanging and this one. Anything I can learn about putting across the truth more lucidly is a bonus, and sorely needed.

Skating around graphs like these is no problem. In fact, it's what they're good for!
Management training courses use similar graphs to identify personality types and preferred leadership styles.
The real trick is 'situational awareness' and is twofold:
a) identify your position of preference (upper left for me, too)
b) identify what is appropriate to the moment, and be able to tailor your actions accordingly.

You 'skittering over to the right with Joe Public' is simply an act of empathy: he's more likely to listen to you than if you stayed over in your corner of the graph shouting at him!

Hi Jamais. Though I wouldn’t venture that the matrix misses something – it’s fascinating for what it shows – I do find myself with questions and seeking further context. One example:

Does the matrix conflate is/ought thinking? Just as some futurists, seeking clear sight, insist on separating fact from value, some Singularitarians argue that the event is coming; our preferences notwithstanding. Conversely, some “traditional environmentalists” – perhaps most – get stuck in pessimism precisely because of an insistence on value. They seek to create change and see implicating business as usual as an initial step.

"The Singularity is Coming" should be "The Singularity is Near"

Whoops! And I have the book on the shelf in front of me, too.

Fixed. Thanks.

I've been collecting different ways of "Quantifying Policital Ideologies", for lack of a better phrase, here. Further contributions are invited (it's a wiki page).

Why in the world would you consider Marxists "lower-right". As a theory, Marxism is based on optimism - freeing large majority of human beings from the bonds of the outdated production system of industrial capitalism.


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