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The Unspoken Word

"But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?"

     —Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet

The idea that tomorrow is a destination, an "undiscovered country," is the lifeblood of classic futurism. We wish to see where we are headed; we want to know what hidden shoals to avoid, and which strong currents to follow. It's this idea of the future as a place just over the horizon that allows us to imagine the "end of history," to fear getting to the future as a race to be lost, to see tomorrow as a land we have yet to conquer.

But what if we instead imagine tomorrow in wholly different terms. What if tomorrow is a word we have yet to speak? The future can be an ongoing conversation, filled with phrases and pauses, debates and soliloquies, a conversation in which all of our voices can be heard. A conversation is larger than any single sentence, although each word is important. It has a narrative and flow, but can head off in surprising directions (although often quite predictable, in retrospect) as new ideas occur to us and new participants enter the scene. A conversation may have had a beginning, but it need not have an ending, as long as we have something to say.

If the future is an undiscovered country, it belongs to none of us (except, perhaps, those who we might displace when we take possession); if the future is an unfinished conversation, it belongs to all of us, as it only matters as long as there are voices to be heard.

The notion of tomorrow as a land just out of reach is an artifact of an age long past, when those who sought to change the world did so by seeking out its most distant edges, whether for trade, treasure or empire. The concept of the future as conversation, however, resonates with today's world, where changes come through mutual creation, collaborative innovation, and the growth of our networks. Inspiration is far more meaningful than exploration in today's world; anticipation -- of the next word, of the next moment -- far more powerful than expectation of what's over the horizon.

An undiscovered country could be found and given name by a lone explorer; conversations, by definition, require more than a single voice. Some speakers will stand out, to be sure, and individual voices may guide the course of the discussion, for a time. But a conversation is not owned by any single person, no matter how vocal; the words move on, the subjects shift, and in due course the conversation bears little resemblance to past debates.

This isn't simply philosophical mumbling. How we speak shapes how we think. As long as we speak of the future in geographic language, we'll continue to look at our choices for tomorrow in terms of ownership, demarcation and, ultimately, limits. Where is the future when there no more lands left to discover?

A conversational metaphor for tomorrow has neither the history nor the breadth of the geographical metaphor, and we will likely speak of horizon-scanning and frontiers and such for some time to come. But it is to our benefit to pay attention to the words we use, and what they truly mean, rather than allow the language of exploration and conquest to remain as unexamined jargon, words that unknowingly shape our vision. It's more important now than ever before that we as a civilization learn how to build an understanding of how the future is shaped into our present-day decisions. We shouldn't let that understanding be created through language with diminishing relevance to our lives, our ideas and our tomorrows.


This is an essay that provides an emphasis that the future is more a continuation of what we are doing today than a land yet to be discovered.

Useful essay because:

1) We remember that we are all active participants in what is to come.

2) We remember that there is some indication today of what might come tomorrow.

3) We remember that our words and how we use them matter (we think in words and how we think matters).

"You're future's all used up," Marlene Dietrich says to Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil."

The future is happening now, as we speak, read, write, and make or do. We build whatever future we have by what we are do now.

"We are as gods and might as well get good at it." "Armageddon out of here."
Whole Earth Catalog


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