Before the Bombs Fall | Opinion


In 1932, science fiction author and social critic HG Wells went to BBC Radio and began telling the future. Soon, he predicted, anyone would be able to “pack a package of explosives or poison gas or incendiary material or any little thing of that sort and send it up in the air to travel anywhere in the world and… to throw off a burden there.”

Wells found it absurd that hundreds of thousands of students and professors were diligently working on the record of the past while no one was busy assessing the impact of new inventions and technologies full-time.

“There is not a single foresight professor in the world! But why shouldn’t there be one?” he asked. “Will there be no foresight until those bombs start raining down on us?”

Ninety years later, many of Wells’ prophecies have come true, but his warnings are largely ignored. Many government agencies and companies strive to anticipate the future—as recently as 2018, the US Government Accountability Office created a center that identifies trends affecting policymakers, for example—but few academic programs research and teach the necessary skills to deal with the complexity and uncertainty of the future. I hear “the future” more often as a buzzword to advertise upcoming products in the areas of “future of work” or “innovation” or “cancer therapeutics”.

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Both collectively and individually, we must begin to consciously question the future. What do we do with this continuous verb form? How different are our visions and how can we convey the differences between them? How should we think about what a good future would look like for ourselves and others? And how much does our vision of the future influence how we shape the future?

Throughout this column, I will interview university professors, professional thinkers, and a wide range of other citizens to gather visions of what is to come 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000 years from now. Your insights will inevitably have to weigh different priorities, and I won’t try to mold them into a coherent fantasy. Instead, I hope to provide some food for thought about where our present ends and our future begins.

According to Hal Hershfield, an associate professor of marketing, behavioral choices, and psychology at UCLA, who agreed to speak to me on Zoom, the relationship between our present and future selves may be more uncertain than we think. Hershfield’s research suggests that the neural patterns evoked when contemplating our future selves are often more similar to the neural patterns evoked by contemplating other people than when contemplating our present selves – you could say that we often treat our distant selves as if they were strangers.

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Conversely, when we perceive our present selves as continuous with our future selves, we experience an emotional sense of connectedness that correlates with long-term exercise, saving, and perhaps even more ethical behavior. Hershfield suggested that I could try to actively bring my future self closer to who I am now, by writing letters to and from my future self or witnessing simulations of aged versions of me in virtual reality.

It seems like building a good future requires concretely imagining our future selves, dilemmas, and choices. Then we can connect these projections to our present selves and our actions.

How can we imagine the future more concretely? Various foresight techniques can help, whether in policy making or in our private lives. Backcasting, for example, asks us to define criteria for a desirable future and then work backwards to specify which programs and policies best meet those criteria; Horizon scanning pushes us to identify and communicate emerging needs or threats. Both techniques bring our distant self closer.

A decade ago, UNESCO, the United Nations agency dedicated to promoting peace through the creation and sharing of knowledge, began teaching “Futures Literacy” as an essential skill of the 21st century. In UNESCO’s Future Literacy Laboratories, participants go through their explicit assumptions and hopes for the future and then critically imagine and evaluate alternative scenarios. For example, one lab brought Egyptian students together to envision shockproof wellbeing in 2050, while another brought together Finnish researchers to discuss security and networks in future cities.

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So let’s think through the years together. I still find it incredible that Cleopatra lived closer to the iPhone launch than to building the Great Pyramids. For example, in the next 2,000 years of human existence, what will become of biotechnological warfare, academic institutions, consumer protection, the concept of aging, the practice of data collection, our relationship to non-human life, or what it means to be? happy?

Such answers will not come easily. Imagining and developing the future requires futurists trained in sociology, evolutionary biology, game theory and empathy, and it requires all of us to seriously question our vision and values.

Our future is a work in progress and we can’t wait for the bombs to rain down on us.

Julie Heng ’24, Editor, is the Integrative Biology and Philosophy Concentrator at Kirkland House. Her Future in Progress column appears every other Monday.



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