Fifteen Minutes into the Future
One of the hardest things to grapple with as a futurist is the sheer banality of tomorrow.
We live our lives, dealing with everyday issues and minor problems. Changes rarely shock; more often, they startle or titillate, and very quickly get folded into the existing cultural momentum. Even when big events happen, even in the worst of moments, we cope, and adapt. This is, in many ways, a quiet strength of the human mind, and a reason for hope when facing the dismal prospects ahead of us.
But futurism, at least as it's currently presented, is rarely about the everyday. More often, futurists tell stories about how some new technology (or political event, or environmental/resource crisis, etc.) will Change Your Life Forever. From the telescopic perspective of looking at the future in the distance, they're right. There's no doubt that if you were to jump from 2008 to 2028, your experience of the future would be jarring and disruptive.
But we don't jump into the future -- what we think of now as the Future is just an incipient present, very soon to become the past. We have the time to cope and adapt. If you go from 2008 to 2028 by living every minute, the changes around you would not be jarring; instead, they'd largely be incremental, and the occasional surprises would quickly blend into the flow of inevitability.
There is a tendency in futurism to treat the discipline as a form of science fiction (and I don't leave myself out of that criticism). We construct a scenario of tomorrow, with people wearing web-connected contact lenses, driving semi-autonomous electric cars to their jobs at the cultured meat factories, and imagine how cool and odd and dislocating it must be to live in such a world. But futurism isn't science fiction, it's history turned on its head. The folks in that scenario don't just wake up one day to find their lives transformed; they live their lives to that point. They hear about new developments long before they encounter them, and know somebody who bought an Apple iLens or package of NuBacon before doing so themselves. The future creeps up on them, and infiltrates their lives; it becomes, for the people living there, the banal present.
William Gibson's widely-quoted saying, "the future is here, it's just not well-distributed yet" is suggestive of this. The future spreads, almost like an infection. The distribution of the future is less an endeavor of conscious advancement than it is an epidemiological process -- a pandemic of tomorrows, if you will.
If futurism is more history inverted than science fiction, perhaps it can learn from the changes that the study of history has seen. One of the cornerstone revolutions in the academic discipline of history was the rejection of the "Great Men" model, where history was the study of the acts of larger-than-life people, the wars fought by more-powerful-than-most nations, and the ideas of the brilliant shapers of culture. Historians have come to recognize that history includes the lives of regular people; some of the most meaningful and powerful historical studies of the past few decades, from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to Ken Burns' popular "Civil War" documentary, focused as much or more on the everyday citizens as they did the "Great Men," and as much on everyday moments as on the "turning points" and revolutionary events.
What might a "people's history of the future" look like?