MJD 59,487

This entry is part 20 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

People who have a literal-minded interest in matters that extend beyond their own lives, and perhaps those of a couple of generations of ancestors and descendants, are an odd breed. For the bulk of humanity, these are zones for mythological imaginings rather than speculative-empirical investigation, if they are of interest at all. For the typical human, what happened in 1500 AD, or what might happen in 2500 AD, are questions to be answered in ways that best sustain the most psyche-bolstering beliefs for today. And you can’t really accuse them of indulging in self-serving cognitions when the others who might be served instead are either dead or unborn.

As a result, mythology is popular (by which I mean any heavily mythologized history, such as that of the founding of the United States, not just literal stories of Bronze Age gods and demons), but history is widely viewed as boring. Science fiction is popular, but futurism (of the wonky statistical trends and painstakingly reality-anchored scenario planning variety) is widely viewed as boring.

But if you think about it, it is history and futurism that are the highly romantic fields. Mythology and science fiction are pragmatic, instrumental fields that should be classified alongside therapy and mental healthcare, since they serve practical meaning-making purposes in the here and now, in a way that is arguably as broadly useful as antibiotics.

History proper is rarely useful. The only reason to study it is the romantic notion that understanding the past as it actually unfolded, even if only 10 people in your narrow subfield pay attention and there are no material consequences in the present, is an elevating endeavor.

Similarly, long-range futurism proper (past around 30 years say) is rarely useful. Most political and economic decisions are fully determined or even overdetermined by much shorter range incentives and considerations. There is also usually crippling amounts of uncertainty limiting the utility of what your investigations reveal. And humans are really bad at acting with foresight that extends past about a year anyway, even in the very rare cases where we do get reliable glimpses of the future. So the main reason to study the future is the romantic notion that it is an elevating endeavor.

Who exactly is it that believes these endeavors are elevating, and why should their conceits be respected, let alone potentially supported with public money?

Well, people like you and me for one, who read and write and argue about these things, and at least occasionally try to rise above mythologizing and science-fictional instincts to get a glimpse of the past and future as they really were or will be, with high plausibility. And I can’t say I have good arguments for why our conceits should be respected or supported. Fortunately, they are also very cheap conceits as conceits go. All we need is time and an internet connection to indulge them, and a small cadre of researchers in libraries and archives generating fodder.

How do we even know when we’ve succeeded? Well of course, sometimes history at least is dispositive, and we find fragments that are no longer subject to serious revisionism. And sometimes the future is too — we can predict astronomical events with extraordinary certainty, for instance.

But that’s just the cerebral level of success. At a visceral, emotional level, when either history or futurism “work” in the romantic sense that interests me, the result is a slight shrinkage in anthropocentric conceptions of the world.

Every bit of history or futurism that actually works is like a micro-Copernican revolution.

When they work, history and futurism remind us that humans are no more at the “center” of time, in the sense of being at the focal point of unfolding events, than we are at the “center” of the universe. The big difference between space and time in this regard is that decentering our egos in historical time is a matter of patient, ongoing grinder-work, rather than one of a few radical leaps in physics.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Yes, an interesting inversion there.

    It’s okay with me to be called some kind of romantic for wanting to know what actually happened, or what might in the future.

    There is utility I get from the study of history as it was recorded by the people in the past who were present for it, and thus hadn’t as much time to build elaborate lies. That is as a defense against the profound falsehood of nearly everything taught in US schools about the European conquest of North America, for instance.

    I find myself often aware that I don’t share a common story with my country-mates, but I put a high value on having some inkling when I am being lied to.

    Thanks.

  2. Alan Grinnell Jones says

    I find an appreciation of deep history, and especially the integration of geologic and ecological processes through Earth’s history, to be both fascinating-elevating and instrumental in helping me make and revise my meanings. Though liberating for me, most people tend to avoid understandings that might distract them from their certainties.

  3. Arjun Sharma says

    I often feel like I understand half of what you write, but half full is not bad.

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