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“Going forward” – with our backs to the future?

June 6th, 2013

If you listen to the news on radio or television today I can almost guarantee you’ll hear someone talk about  going forward.

What some see as a “superfluous, meaningless, ubiquitous” phrase  has crept firmly into our language, but  this post isn’t just another rant about silly and useless sayings .

On the contrary, I want to use going forward as the starting point for a brief  and serious journey into the psychology of futures- thinking. (Don’t be fooled by the bunny pictures – I really am serious, and I’ll even leave you with some questions to ponder …going forward, if you will….).

Enough talk, let’s meet Mr Purple Bunnyman.

Going forward? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad.

Mr P. Bunnyman, naturally, is going forward into the future.  Well, it doesn’t make sense any other way, right?  It’s illogical to think about going forward into the past, yes?

Those who talk about going forward tend to do so in conversations about planning, strategies, “where-to-from-here”, “what-next”, “how-are-we-going-to-fix-this” kind of scenarios. All of this signals that we think about the future as something we are heading towards - it’s metaphorically in front of us. The past, by contrast, all the stuff that’s been, it’s metaphorically behind us. We  ”look forward” towards the future, we “look back” to see the past.

This is all so obvious that I see why people get irritated by the introduction of meaningless and redundant jargon like “going forward”. Perhaps it’s just another pleonasm, like ”true facts” and “free gifts”  or “where you at?” that we must learn to live with.[1]

Or maybe there is something more serious to think about, going forward?

For example, what happens if we turn Mr P. Bunnyman around?

Backs to the future? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

Backs to the future? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

Although he’s now facing the other direction, Mr Bunnyman is no time traveller – he’s still diligently following time’s arrow, moving inexorably in one direction (since this isn’t a science fiction blog, we’ll stick with the conventional arrangement of  past->present->future, thanks very much). Metaphorically,  the past is now laid out before his eyes, while the future is behind him where he can’t  see it –  at least not until he gets there and it  becomes his present and later, his past.

If you stop to think about it, the second picture actually maybe makes a little bit more sense. We know we can’t “see” the future – except in our imaginations – whereas we can see, touch, feel, smell, taste, the present, and we have access to memories, artefacts, and records of the past.

We don’t often think or talk about the future this way, do we? If we did, perhaps we might spend a bit more time thinking about clever ways to engineer our way out of  our natural handicap of being unable to see where we’re going. We might  think a bit harder about what unexpected surprises we might back ourselves into. Or we might look for ways to predict the likelihood that we’ll be OK on the current path. We might actually use that information to think about changing our path or orienting ourselves in a different direction.

I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot – this problem of how we think, or maybe don’t think, about the future. I’m less concerned about this at the individual/personal level (how we think about our own personal futures), as much as how we do it collectively – how our social systems and structures orient us in relation to “the future”, and why it appears as though we humans  have a bit of a laissez-faire, don’t-worry-we-have-it-sorted kind of attitude on things to do with the future.

After several years of reading everything I can get my hands on about futures thinking – from science fiction, to neuroscience, to futures-studies and the academic discpline of strategic foresight – I’ve started to form some views on this which I’ve been sharing in different ways – on this blog, in presentations and workshops, in some of my research writing, pretty much any time I get the chance in fact.

The problem with thinking about the future, in my view, is that we overestimate our natural capability to do it. Yes, we know the future is unwritten. Yes, we know it holds a degree of uncertainty, and we know that our decisions and actions in the present are part of what actually create whatever future we  are going to encounter.

We know all of these things, and yet we sort of behave like we don’t. We persist with this mental imagery of the future being in front of us, with all the confidence and certainty of a weekend tramper off for a lovely roam around the hills. Maybe we don’t know exactly what’s coming, but we feel pretty confident we’ll see it coming,  and we kind of assume we’ll know what to do with it when we get there.

To bring home just how unusual it is to take Mr Purple Bunnyman’s contrary backwards-facing perspective on the  future, take note of this  2006 study of South America’s indigenous Aymara people which found that:

Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind….

Analysis of the gestural data proved telling: The Aymara, especially the elderly who didn’t command a grammatically correct Spanish, indicated space behind themselves when speaking of the future – by thumbing or waving over their shoulders – and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past – by sweeping forward with their hands and arms, close to their bodies for now or the near past and farther out, to the full extent of the arm, for ancient times. In other words, they used gestures identical to the familiar ones – only exactly in reverse

Read more at: http://phys.org/news69338070.html#jCp

This study is now about 7 years old, and I don’t know whether there has been more work done in this area, but reading the article you’ll see  that the linguistic experts certainly thought it was a pretty big deal to find a human culture – possible the only one – with a reverse orientation to the past and future embedded so deeply in thought and language.

Where I’m going with this is to encourage you to take a moment to think about those things we do all our thinking with – our minds. I think we need to understand better how our minds work if we are to become better future-thinkers. The Aymara reverse-view of time provides one opportunity to think about the consequences of certain ways of thinking, and I find it a particularly interesting one. Note that at least one researcher speculates that this different way of thinking had profound consequences

This cultural, cognitive-linguistic difference could have contributed, Nunez said, to the conquistadors’ disdain of the Aymara as shiftless – uninterested in progress or going “forward.”

Read more at: http://phys.org/news69338070.html#jCp

Going back to going forward, I also invite you to think further with me about what all this “going forward” language and thinking tells us about our strengths and weaknesses as futures-thinking beasties. I can assure you that the invitation to think together is real – I certainly haven’t got it all figured out yet, but I want to keep picking away at these ideas and see where they lead.

In the next posting I’ll pick up where I’ve left off with some more interesting research I’ve been reading.

Not quite so sure any more. Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

[1] For the record, I do use, and will continue to use “where you at?” or maybe “wher u@?” when I’m in a hurry.

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