Thursday, December 27, 2007

The new year is a good time to look ahead, not back

Other dates are more associated with division. There’s always some excuse to fight over the “true meaning” of Christmas, Halloween and even Columbus Day.

But while no one actively fights over it, no date reveals a greater divide than New Year’s.

That divide is between people who look forward and those who look backward. As 2007 ends and 2008 begins, we spend most of our time looking back at the year that was: who died, events that shaped the world, Time magazine’s Person of the Year. We spend a good deal less time, it seems, looking forward to trends and issues that will shape the new year and years to come.

If we spend more time looking backward than forward, that’s understandable. The past is easy. We usually know what happened even if we don’t know what it all means. The future, however, is unknowable. We can only imagine it.

Still, even if predicting the future is more difficult than reflecting on the past, that’s no excuse not to give the future a try.

Yes, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History is important, obviously. But as The Amazing Criswell once said, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” A phony, showbiz psychic has never spoken truer words.

Looking forward, beyond the short run, doesn’t come naturally to us. In fact, it’s a recent phenomenon. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have to look beyond the next hunt. And our agrarian ancestors, who came later, didn’t worry about much beyond the current growing season. As far as most people back then were concerned, the future was going to be pretty much like the past — awful. So, there was no point dwelling on it.

That didn’t really change until the early 1800s, and with good reason. According to Gregory Clark, chairman of the University of California, Davis economics department and author of “A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World,” living standards remained basically stable — and low — from our hunter-gather days through the 18th century. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution got under way in the 19th century that living standards (for some) shot up, technological advancement exploded and life spans increased.

Suddenly, the future mattered. In a big way. It’s no accident that the late 1800s saw the birth of science fiction, as seen in the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. People now had to speculate about the long term.

But before the Industrial Revolution could take hold, it needed the proper intellectual climate — one that fostered scientific discovery and entrepreneurship. That climate was the Enlightenment.

From the late 1600s through about 1800, scientists, philosophers, historians and economists — people like Isaac Newton, David Hume and Adam Smith — pushed forward the boundaries of human understanding. This was as forward-looking a group of intellectuals as the world has ever seen. By enabling the progress that followed, they helped make the rest of us in the West forward-looking, too.

Science fiction writer David Brin divides the world into forward-looking Enlightenment societies and Romantic societies, which look back to some long-ago Golden Age.

Romanticism in the 1800s was a reaction to the Enlightenment and idealized a pre-industrial bliss that never existed. Today, America still has elements of both its Enlightenment and Romantic heritages. But it’s the ratio that counts.

As we enter a new year, there is no better time to set out sights toward what is to come. We can indulge in nostalgia anytime. The past will always be there. But the future will be here before we know it.

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