The Difference between Present Futures and Future Presents

There is a significant difference between “present futures” and “future presents.”

A “future present” refers to a certain point in time in the future. This point will become the present at some time. When we imagine being somewhere in two weeks, we think about a future present. But that image in our head of that future point in time is a “present future.” It is being felt in our heads right now in the present.

The distinction between these two understandings of the future is essential for Future Studies because only one of those is “real” and thus scientifically investigable. As future presents haven’t happened yet, they haven’t become a reality and are not accessible. Present futures – the hopes, anticipations, expectations, and imaginations in our heads – on the other hand, can be examined with the help of social sciences.

How we imagine the future in the present has very little to do with how the future will turn out when it becomes the present. Instead, it’s a strong reflection of how we perceive the present: Tell me what you think about the future, and I will tell you how you feel about the present.

This text is a seedling, which means it is an unpolished thought or idea that will grow and mature over time. For this purpose, it has been planted in the garden. Let me know your questions and thoughts via email.

We can’t handle the future

IFTF’s Jane McGonigal is promoting her new book Imaginable. Her crucial talking points are the two foresight games she did in 2008 and 2010 involving more than 20,000 people and accurately predicting the Corona pandemic.

But as Tim Harford points out in his FT article (paywalled):

As a life-long gamer, I am easily persuaded of the benefits of games, but they are no panacea, even when they do predict the future. Superstruct and Evoke did not prevent pandemic policy missteps;

One could even ask if those games had any effect on the pandemic they predicted. And thus, they are an excellent example of what I deem to be the biggest challenge of foresight work: nobody listens.

In this interview with Stuart Candy, which is an excellent primer on futures studies btw., he also points toward this problem:

However, over some years of working with foresight in government, I found that policymakers had limited capacity to envision alternative futures, and even where the field had a certain currency, its legacy methods weren’t necessarily having great impact. […]

The field traditionally has been very strong on frameworks for organizing thought, but less so on converting those anticipations into embodied insights and making them stick.

I’ve spent some time studying the history of futures studies and foresight, and I think it’s rather bleak. I like to sum it up as “a history of being ignored.” So this is a general topic that has been on my mind for the last couple of years: how can our work in futures studies become more effective and lasting?

Sure, this isn’t just a problem with our work and methods. It’s also caused by the short-termism and focus on the now in business and politics. Nevertheless, it’s the biggest and most exciting challenge we’re facing as a field, and after sixty years, we should be able to find better answers.

My personal approach has been to look at imaginaries as collective expectations that have become so ingrained that they are taken for granted and impossible to challenge. Charles Taylor talks about them as a background understanding in society that guides all decisions and behaviors.

Foresight and even futures studies have always been primarily interested in creating new images of the futures/scenarios. But unless they feed into the status quo, they are usually dismissed. That’s why I’m so interested in critical futures studies work. It can help create awareness of current future imaginaries and thus open up receptiveness for new images of the future.

This seedling is based on a conversation with Patrick on the Sentiers discord.

A regular reminder

A signal is not a trend. A trend is not a future. A future is not THE future.

Presenting a signal as a trend is usually a deliberate act of invoking a certain future.