Ideas: Where Does the Future Show Up First?

Cyberpunk author William Gibson said that “The future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” A logical question to follow is, “Where is the future right now?” Obvious suggestions include Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., Beijing, or if we think Elon Musk is the future, we follow him from California to Austin, Texas. But those answers are too easy and too limiting. The future is a little less tame than that. Where else is the future to be found ahead of time?

In 2020, the future was first found in cities like Wuhan, China and after the death of George Floyd, it was also found in Minneapolis and both futures spread rapidly. Our bias for pre-packaged futures is showing because those were not expected, especially by those who were comfortable with the future as it already was. As William F. Buckley noted, “Every time we etherize the future so we can examine it, it rises up and kicks us in the ass.” It seems that a willingness to be surprised is a valuable trait in those wanting to find the future. If you’re only seeing your own comfortable little world (even if you find the familiar very uncomfortable) as the source of the future, you’re missing most of the ingredients.

Another way of exploring this idea about where else do you find the future is to ask, “Who’s not here?” Who’s not here such that if they were here, they’d have a significantly different view on where things are going? How would the “uninvited” see the future if they did have a place at the table? How do we make room and make welcome. I think we start with curiosity.

Another question: Are all of those on the outside really not invited or do they have their own issues that make them want to stay away from the table? My impression is that as society gets more open, some people like to be the rebel and seek to be outside the norm and acceptability. Tattoos can be a good example. In the United States when I was younger, the only people with tattoos were those who had been in the military and probably drunk. Then they spread. First one or a few and those people were rebels and found themselves to be cool. But then lots of people got tattoos because they wanted to be rebels and on the outside, and so to distinguish yourself, you’d get an entire sleeve done or a lot of them everywhere. The point is, tattoos are no longer a sign of rebellion, they’re more likely a sign of conformity. Signs of rebellion often do not age well and I can easily imagine that the next generation of young adults will rebel by not getting tattoos. Because in the not too distant future, tattoos are what old people have.

And, here’s a great point to recall Hubert H. Humphrey saying, “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.” Presupposing that all ideas are to be equally valued is an absurd, if not increasingly popular. It does suggest that for those held away from the central conversations that the disassociation has harmed both sides and the disconnection between people has led to broken ideas. As will be mentioned elsewhere on this site, a favorite notion from my talks is that “Wealth is found in connections.” This is especially true about unexpected connections. The ability to see unexpected connections is a skill not well understood, but vital especially in times of dramatic change. What’s not yet connected that will help you find more solutions? Far more difficult, how do you discern between good ideas and simply well sounding ideas?

The answer is education, particularly classical, liberal arts education. Well rounded curiosity that is nurtured through good teachers, good parents, peers and a society that values curiosity. This is strongly nurtured through books – especially books read with a pen in hand so you can turn the book from a monologue into a dialogue.

A few years ago, I was speaking with seminarians and one of them asked, “But what if you’re not curious about anything?” As we dug into the conversation a little bit more, it was that he wasn’t a book learner. What did he love? Soccer? When I asked if he was curious about soccer, he said he didn’t understand the question. Did he want to learn everything he could about soccer? Yes. Did he know lots of stats about players and teams? Did he want to become a better player? Yes. In other words, he was very curious about soccer, but the bias towards books (a very fine bias, I might add…) sometimes blinds us to how curiosity (and life) works. Be curious about games, because the future can come from those as well.

As the Duke of Wellington supposedly said, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

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