Insights · April 10th, 2011

Later this week, on April 15, 2011, I will be doing presentations to the World Foresight Forum in The Hague, Netherlands. On that day I will be part of a panel entitled Roadmaps for a Shared Future, where we will discuss envisioning alternative futures in the context of the “Gross National Happiness Index” as proposed by French President Sarkozy. Thinking about alternative visions brought me back to this article that I wrote originally in early 2001. It can be found in our article archives, but is worth sharing here once again, I think. It was written prior to 9/11, by the way.

Any student of the rise and fall of cultures cannot fail to be impressed by the role played in this historical succession by the image of the future. The rise and fall of images precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive. (The Image of the Future, Fred Polak, 1961)

I have been thinking about images of the future lately. I have noticed that when I complete one of my typically positive and optimistic presentations, a certain number of people will stand in line to comment. Some wish to say that they appreciate the hopeful view of the future, but a surprising number wish to say that I am wrong, that things are bad, worse than they have ever been, and getting even worse by the moment. We do not have long to last, they say.

It is not so much that I am surprised at this view, or even that within particular limited domains the view might have some validity. It is consistently surprising, rather, to notice how pleased many people are with their assessment of the future. A few are positively giddy that things are so bad.

Perhaps it is that certain types thrive on crisis. Perhaps a dour view of the general future allows the satisfaction of feeling lucky that your personal future does not look so bad. Surveys for years have demonstrated that people tend to be more optimistic about their own future than about the future in general.

What happens when a growing proportion of a society adopts a decaying view of the future? Which vision of the future is dominant in post-industrial world-around culture today?

Robert Heilbroner, in his 1995 book, Visions of the Future, outlines three historical visions of the future, which have existed successively in the Distant Past, Yesterday and Today.

By the “Distant Past” Heilbroner refers to all of human existence from the appearance of Homo Sapiens 150,000 years ago down to the emergence of “Yesterday,” approximately two or three hundred years ago. The Distant Past began with primitive societies using stone and flint tools, followed by ten to twenty thousand years during which material progress slowly accelerated with the use of copper and bronze. This was followed around the 6th millennium B.C. by a tremendous social change that itself lasted several thousand years, the emergence of the first complex and stratified societies of history, the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese kingdoms and empires. The Distant Past eventually included Greece and Rome, the Aztecs and Mayans, the Middle Ages, and finally the appearance of the modern nation-state in Europe in the 17th Century.

This Distant Past encompasses an enormous range of human societal forms and experience. It was diverse in myriad ways, except for one, “its earthly view of the future,” according to Heilbroner. From seers to oracles to priests, from rulers to commoners, the record that exists suggests that people shared one view of the future: that it would not change. They did not imagine that the material conditions of the masses of people or its rulers would change “in the slightest degree.”

This view of the future remained stable despite increasing travel and trade, and the ebb and flow of kingdoms and empires. People believed in the acceptance of things as they had always been and must henceforth always be. Varying religious systems reinforced this view, promising only reward or punishment in an afterlife.

Yesterday began about 300 years ago, and lasted until perhaps the middle of the 20th Century, says Heilbroner. With the Renaissance, the emergence of science and of theories of material progress and then machines and industry, the view of the future changed. Seemingly overnight, there emerged a vision of the future as the “carrier of previously unimaginable possibilities for improving the human condition at all levels.” In other words, hope and confidence had arrived and became dominant.

Yesterday’s image of the future was not evenly distributed around the world, in contrast to the Distant Past. In many parts of the world – Africa, parts of Asia, Latin America, parts of Europe – the material conditions remained relatively unchanged, and an unchanging image of the future remained in place.

Today covers the period beginning in the middle of the 20th Century and continuing into 2001 (remember the year that the future arrived!). In this period, the one in which most people have lived, our images of the future have come to be dominated by large and impersonal forces, namely science, economics and mass political movements. It is Heilbroner’s central thesis that these forces, seen as benign and positive Yesterday, have come to appear as “potentially or even actively malign, ominous, threatening.” Moreover, it is in the most advanced industrial and capitalistic regions of the world that the vision of the future has taken on this dark tenor. Today’s image of the future is marked by a new degree of pessimism.

The pessimism differs from Yesterday obviously, but also from the Distant Past. In the Distant Past people believed that things would not change. Today many people believe that things will change, but for the worse. As an audience member commented to me one time, “I knew that things were changing, but I didn’t know it was this bad.”

It is not clear that a malign image of the future has become dominant. It is clear that, Today, the future is seen as “contestable.”

There are positive consequences of this contestability, the most important of which is a heightened vigilance against unconsidered technology, social inequality, and exploitation.

There is a cost as well. It seems to me that the cost is reflected most significantly in a drift back to the future of the Distant Past, in which a growing proportion of people adopt a future image marked by discouragement and stagnation, and ultimately hopelessness.

Contrast a dour future image, prevalent Today, with the image of a visionary who bridged Yesterday and Today, Buckminster Fuller. It was Fuller who argued that only as recently as the 1980’s had the world reached a level of technological, scientific and imaginative knowledge, as well as sufficient connectivity, that it would now be feasible to take care of all humanity on the planet at a high standard of living, ever doing more and more with less and less, and thus preserving and enhancing the environment in the process.

Such an image seems both alluring and quaint in 2001 [and in 2011]. What will be the image of the future that emerges in the 21st Century?

[Postscript 2011: The tendency to negative future images seems much more pronounced today than in 2001 when I wrote an original versioin of this article. Global challenges have multiplied since then. The question is whether both the challenges, and the images of the future, can be reversed.]

Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video producer and Founder of To arrange for a speech contact

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Nikolas Badminton – Chief Futurist

Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

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