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Future Tense Newsletter: Why It’s So Hard to Think About the Future
August 24, 2023

Future Tense Newsletter: Why It’s So Hard to Think About the Future

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Why It’s So Hard to Think About the Future, Why it’s so hard to think about the future.

At a recent Future Tense planning retreat for colleagues from all three of our partners—MediaDownloader, New America, and Arizona State University—I asked everyone to fill in the blank to finish the following statement: ‘The future is ____.’

The answers were all over the map. Multifarious. Here. An opportunity. Fuzzy. Human. Undetermined. Knocking. Ours. Surprising. Everything. Fun. Wondrous. Behind us. Scary. Exciting. And, perhaps most intriguingly of all: Nothing.

With nothing, my colleague wasn’t trying to be provocatively nihilistic. What he worries about is that we are so weighted down as a society by a feeling of helpless anxiety about where we’re headed, and (consequently) so drawn to nostalgia as a cultural overindulgence, that many of us have stopped daring to think, let alone dream, about the future.

Our frayed relationship with the very idea of the future has worried me for some time. It’s healthy for a society not to be unquestioningly, complacently Pollyanna-ish about what’s to come, but it’s also deeply unhealthy, and feels somehow un-American, for a society to recoil from even engaging with its future, ideally from a place of intentional hope.

This summer hasn’t been an auspicious one for pushing back against this collective anxiety. Just look at the state of our politics. Or the record 31 consecutive days of 110-plus-degree heat we withstood here in metro Phoenix. One of the most memorable escapes I experienced from the desert heat was going to watch Oppenheimer in a chilly theater. It’s an astonishingly good movie, deserving of all its accolades. Still, I can’t help but think that it was embraced with special fervor in 2023 not just because its release was paired with Barbie‘s, but because it captured our dour zeitgeist. Never mind nuclear weapons; the movie was released to a society angsting over whether artificial intelligence may soon overtake, if not destroy, human intelligence (and humans themselves). Much like cultural historians read great meaning into The Exorcist becoming a big hit in the waning days of Watergate and the Vietnam War, they will no doubt make much of Oppenheimer‘s release at a time when it’s fashionable to fret, once again, over whether humans, in their relentless push toward technological progress, have endangered their own survival.

All these anxious headwinds feel especially fraught as America prepares to turn 250 in 2026. Future Tense will mark the occasion and the two-year run-up to it, with a sustained inquiry into our nation’s past, present, and coming relationship with the idea of the future. The 250th anniversary is dubbed the Semiquincentennial—the semi marking the halftime of our first Quincentennial. Imagine we’re going into the locker room for halftime, I joked at our retreat: What pep talk does our national coach deploy to prepare us for next 250 years?

What will America look like when we celebrate our 500th anniversary?

That’s a terrifying thought, many in the room at the retreat agreed, but why? Objectively, life’s never been better than in 2023, and yet we don’t feel entitled to look ahead with optimism. This feels like a break from the past, from that quintessential American belief in ineluctable progress that has always been a staple of our national identity, even in far grimmer times. That’s what we’ve always been taught, anyway—though I find myself wondering if we don’t have an excessively rose-tinted rearview mirror when it comes to remembering our fabled can-do American optimism.

At a separate retreat I attended this week, for Cronkite School faculty to kick off the new academic year at ASU, our dean recommended we read The Book of Charlie: Wisdom From the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man by David Von Drehle. Having grown up in what he characterizes as the relative stability of postwar/Cold War America, Von Drehle opens the book by confessing a fear: that he might not know enough about change to be of much help to his kids—who, by contrast, are growing up in a ‘maelstrom of change.’ Hence the value of the life story and lessons of his Kansas City neighbor Charlie, as someone who, in Von Drehle’s words, was ‘a true surfer on a sea of change.’

Von Drehle writes: ‘An American born in the early 1900s who managed to live into the 2000s would have one foot planted in the age of draft animals and diphtheria—a time when only 6 percent of Americans graduated from high school—and the other planted in the age of space stations and robotic surgery. Such a person would have traveled from The Birth of a Nation to Barack Obama. From women forbidden to vote to women running nations and corporations.’

Von Drehle boils down the lessons of Charlie’s life down to ‘stoicism.’ It’s less about whether Americans and their society looked into the future with dread or optimism in the face of unrelenting change and individual hardships and opportunities, and more about their willingness to navigate the frictions of those transitions and keep moving forward.

Academia and media, my two retreating communities, are industries prone to getting stuck in the frictions and anxieties of transitions. We tend to validate and seek to remedy all real and perceived losses or pain that results from change. It’s a laudable corrective from a less caring era, but we run the risk of an empathy overload that makes it harder to plow on. As the management guru Ronald Heifetz put it brilliantly: ‘What people resist is not change per se, but loss.’ Increasingly, judging by our culture and politics, the same is true of institutions and nations.

Which brings me back to my colleague’s notion of the future being at risk of becoming ‘nothing,’ of being suffocated by waves of nostalgia and a sense of loss.

It’s a tension underlying all our thinking about the future, and all our evaluation of risk. How do we embrace that empathy and conscience about the costs of change without abandoning our responsibility to make things better, and our confidence and hope that we can pull it off?

As we enter this new year—c’mon, we all know years don’t actually start in January, but are pegged to school terms, fiscal periods, and NFL seasons—it’s worth asking ourselves, again: What are we looking forward to?

Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

Our latest Future Tense Fiction story is ‘No Regrets,’ by Carter Scholz. It’s a satirical look at a Bond villain turned tech bro who has a radical idea to slow global warming (or so he’d like you to believe). The response essay, by Tyler Austin Harper, explores the dangers of handing our fates over to billionaires convinced they know best.

Suits‘ Success & the Future of Netflixonomics,’ by Julia Alexander, Puck.

On the topic of our past relationship with the future, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, by Dennis C. Rasmussen, provides a sobering corrective to any impression we may have that America’s Founding Fathers felt triumphant in retirement. They had serious doubts about the viability of the republic they had brought into the world. Being reminded of how bitterly polarized politics and media were back then also offers some consolation to us 21st-century readers.

On Friday’s episode of MediaDownloader’s technology podcast, guest host Emily Peck interviewed Wired’s Joel Khalili about how crypto promised sex workers an alternative to traditional banking systems—and then left them hanging. Last week, guest host Celeste Headlee interviewed the Trace’s Champe Barton about the race to create a ‘smart gun.’ Celeste also spoke with technologist Anil Dash about Richard Hanania and the racism embedded within the tech industry. And on Sunday, Emily will chat with culture writer Kate Lindsay about how tech is complicating grieving.


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