Deep Thoughts: meaning and the future
The future’s not what it was
In order to live up to the demands of the future we need forecasts that are as reliable as possible, but the current predilection for gloomy forecasts points to the fact that counter-movements are being created against the individual of the future. Our longing for meaning and stability does not seem to have been allayed, either by capitalism or science. Is the future-oriented individual on the retreat?
By Karl-Olov Arnstberg Ethnologist, Stockholm/Axess Magazine
Just as Socrates complained about the young so, the assumption goes, older people have always groused about younger people. This, however, is not quite true. If we restrict ourselves to pre-industrial Sweden, not even the concept of youth holds good. It was only with industrialisation and the beginnings of modern society that youth acquired the significance it has today of a very specific period, interposed between childhood and adulthood. In pre-industrial Swedish society there were three distinct ages: childhood, youth and old age, in which youth was, for a long time, much the same as “manhood.”
The reason for this change was that modern society turned its gaze towards the future; and who was going to dominate the future, if not youth? The first romantic and political youth cult of modern times was not at all critical towards youthful degeneracy, but had rather to do with the responsibilities of youth and the opportunities of creating a better society. As Henrik Berggren shows in his thesis Seklets ungdom. Retorik, politik och modernitet 1900-1939 (Tiden 1995) (“The Century’s Youth: Rhetoric, Politics and Modernity 1900-1939”) the young—to the applause of adults—claimed they were superior to older people. They stood as a vanguard of the future.
For a couple of decades now a new change appears to have been taking place. We are said to be living in post-modern, ultramodern or perhaps late modern times, but none of these terms provides particularly good guidance, other than in the sense that we find ourselves in some kind of half-hearted antithesis to modernism.
STRICTLY SPEAKING, there is neither history nor future. What exists is an eternal present, as a kind of junction where future is converted into past time. Human beings are admittedly condemned to live in this present—time is the dimension we have least control over—but we have a choice to make over which we should consider to be most valuable: history or the future. Traditional societies choose history, and as far as is possible solve those problems occurring in their daily lives by taking the views of an older generation as a guiding principle. One could say that historically-oriented societies would rather be safe than sorry. Those in authority do not believe that they can control life on their own but consider they need to be helped not only by their gods but also by the oldest and wisest members of the group.
Ultimately, the shift in focus between historical time and the future has to do with the transition from knowing to understanding. Anyone who wishes to understand does not necessarily need to acquire a large number of experiences. Instead it is a question of being able to reason critically and systematically, to conduct an analysis in which it is possible to check each step of the process. It is for this reason we do not believe that we will have rain, even if the priests during a period of drought are praying most fervently.
A modern consciousness finds no connection between prayers and rain. More than this, we believe we know that there can be no such connection. Instead we investigate whether we can create the kind of cloud which releases rain. Or else we begin even earlier by studying meteorological phenomena, with the intention of being able to predict rain. As far as it is possible we wish to understand what is going to happen so that we are at least prepared.
Our lives are permeated by that type of prediction. I checked how many works that Libris—the Swedish library system’s search engine on the net—registered including the Swedish word prognos (“prognosis, prediction, forecast”) in their title. There were a total of 352. What about the following sample:
- Technological prognosis—100 experts prophesy about the technology of the future.
- What will the weather be like? Create your own forecast quickly and easily.
- Buckwheat moths counted in pheromone traps: efficient forecast on the way.
- Model for predicting the point in time and nature of the ice melt on River Torneälv.
- Borderline personality disorder: origins, treatment and prognosis.
- Prognosis for the cabbage stem flea beetle, 1998.
- Full-face driving of the Klippen Tunnel in Lappland: prognosis, follow up and analysis of the working data.
- The Lakes of Stockholm County: development, status and prognosis.
- Private cars: prognosis to year 2015.
- Prognosis and control in the Social Democrats’ vision of the future.
THE QUESTION IS what it is that causes history to change over into the future. I myself would make a bet that the reorientation is a product of the Enlightenment and its critical thinking. And if I were to mention one thinker who has meant more than others in this regard, then it would be the moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith, who with The Wealth of Nations (1776) emphasised the importance of wealth. Put simply, poverty is hell and the only individual who is happy is one who lives in prosperity, a view which “happiness researchers” even today consider to be valid. Adam Smith saw logically all of society as a controllable and predictable machine whose principal task was to produce wealth.
This idea is also the lowest common denominator of the three great political ideologies of our times: conservatism, liberalism and socialism.
But that scarcely suffices as an answer. In Tyranny of the Moment (2001), the anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen writes that it is the clock, plus the art of printing, plus science and its technology, plus the industrial method of production, plus capitalism, which comprises the cultural package creating a belief in the future.
There is also a common denominator in this context, namely that these phenomena “liberate” humankind. The clock makes time linear, mechanical and universal. The art of printing is the first step in the liberation of knowledge. There is a limit to what one human being can master, but there are no limits to the knowledge that a library can contain—not to speak of how knowledge is managed in our computerised age. Science has to do with creating universally valid knowledge. It has even to be independent of the researcher—objectivity being one of the key concepts of science.
The industrial method of production has to do with rational production without context. The icing on the cake is the only real hard currency of capitalism, namely the money which in its turn makes almost all values translatable into each other.
Is this progress? Absolutely! Great steps forward for humankind create great self-confidence; we place an ever greater trust in human ability. Perhaps humankind can control existence entirely on its own?
Logically, modern societies minimise contact with both the gods and old people. There are admittedly old men and women in important positions here and there in the modern world, but if we look at the overall picture, the overwhelming majority are young. The cutting edge competence which drives development is considered to be best mastered by the young.
This applies, for example, to large companies which in our times need to reduce the numbers of their staff. It is the oldest who are offered severance pay and have to leave, not the young. “The oldest” can in extreme cases mean staff who have barely reached 35 years of age.
Modern society in this way becomes a society which constantly keeps up with developments, leading to the search for “the latest thing.” The main task of those in power in society is development; a safe society must improve constantly. A modern society which falls behind has quite simply become outmoded.
THERE IS A DECISIVE DIFFERENCE between history and the future in the sense that one cannot do anything about history. One can learn from it, and can relate to it and one can interpret it endlessly, but there is no getting away from the fact that what has happened has happened. It is different with the future, as it has not yet occurred. Modern people do their best in other words to concentrate on the future, in order to ensure that society and individuals “move in the right direction,” even if it never turns out exactly as one imagines. There are basically three levels of future, which interact with each other:
1. Utopias are the most distant in their role as visions, dreams and fantasies of the future, for example the classless society we were to achieve via the dictatorship of the proletariat. For traditional societies paradise is a source, an existence to which the inhabitants dream of returning. For future-oriented societies the source is uninteresting; what is important is the future realm of happiness. And this perfect society, with its happy inhabitants, is not God’s work but something we ourselves can achieve. Dystopias also have their place here, alarming images of what happens if we allow the wrong forces to direct us, or alternatively do not control and regulate the present more firmly. Classic dystopias are Kafka’s The Trial , Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World , George Orwell’s 1984 and Swedish novelist Karin Boye’s Kallocain . In recent times the dystopias have come primarily from Hollywood with the Terminator films, Robocop ,Bladerunner and Minority Report . Wikipedia on the web lists 70 or so dystopian films.
2. Predictions differ from utopias and dystopias in that they speak of what will happen in the immediate future. They have pretensions to resting on a scientific basis. We encounter them in the media almost every day. The day I am completing this text the news is that the social insurance offices and the Premium Pension Authority are to send out a new kind of “orange envelope” to the country’s 440,000 pensioners. The aim is to give them an overall picture of their pensions, so that they can carry out the best possible planning of their future. There are not only predictions of what will be put into society and its citizens but also what will disappear as outdated. For example, there are futurologists who are convinced that money will be replaced by cards and will disappear, something that at least in part is already true today. Niels Böttger-Rasmussen, a researcher at the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, considers that this will also lead to workers in the black economy disappearing, as they are often paid in cash. Like hell!
3. Regulations, aimed at getting the inhabitants in a society to strive towards common utopian goals, or in any case not to go in the wrong direction and in this way create a worse society than the one we already have. It is a question of accepting market forces, so the growth is big enough. If the future is a questionable god, then it does not work at all for capitalism. A society without growth is synonymous with a society in decline, but it is also a matter of keeping the market mechanisms in check, primarily with the aid of taxation and transfers. High petrol tax is assumed to lead to a reduction in environmental pollution. A high tax on spirits limits alcohol abuse and in this way violence and alcoholism. Housing subsidies counteract housing segregation, etc. Here, too, it is a question of starting as early as possible, before the harm has been done; or as Peter Sellers once put it, it is a question of scratching even before it has started to itch.
WE HAVE TO MANAGE THE FUTURE so that it does not fall on our heads, and the benefit of this victory of brain over heart is not merely wealth but also control. The future, we feel, will increasingly arrive sooner than we imagine. This ability to master the future also leads to our ability to live beyond our means. We can, for example, buy houses and capital goods we cannot afford, because the banks count on us checking up on the future so that we are not merely able to pay today but also tomorrow. We can start our children on long, dreary studies with the argument that they can expect future rewards. And insurance minimises the loss when something happens which should not happen. It is a matter of acquiring guarantees that the future functions even if it does not function.
History is still there, of course, in our future-fixated collective consciousness, but it has a different role than it did traditional societies. It presents as an evolutionary process, and it is today that we have gone furthest. History is understood as a linear development leading on to the current situation. It can be fun to know something of what it used to be like in former times, but this is not really important knowledge, as then we had not advanced as far as we have today. Why listen to a crystal wireless set from the 1930s if one can listen to a radio set of the most up-to-date kind on the market? One day the society that we currently have will have been transformed into something better and more advanced. We are on a journey into a constantly better life (development), and history contains no golden age, but merely a bunch of solutions to diverse problems of life, solutions which are worse than those which we can implement today.
We Swedes like this fundamental view, and are fond of describing ourselves and our country as the most modern in existence. This applies not merely with reference to Swedish technology and research, but also to important political and social advances. We consider that Swedish job equality and equal opportunities are the best in the world, just as is Swedish child-rearing. The fact that the elderly then might have a relatively problematic relationship with the younger generation does not alter this modern dogma. For example, can a country where corporal punishment is accepted not have come as far as Sweden, quite irrespective of what the relationships between young and old look like. When this is being written, the Faeroes have, as the last country in Scandinavia, made corporal punishment of children illegal. This means that they have become more modern, that they have taken a step forward in their development.
IF WE LEAVE THE BROAD VIEW of how society works, and ask the question how one as an individual should think when one is thinking in a modern way, it is easier to reply with a number of “not’s” than to specify a commanding set of rules. In some way this has to do with the fact that the modern individual has been liberated from a number of bonds limiting his or her thinking. The principal rule for modern thinking is that one should be reasonable and rational. If one wishes to criticise this, one can talk of the trap of reason—is life worth living if one does not believe in anything and abandons oneself?
Of course not; one has to see new causes for rejoicing, different things to accept. But these are sought on a different level. Everyday relationships should be freed from cultural distinctiveness. More or less consciously we demand that people we associate with should be “like us.” Just as long as it is not noticeable in a disturbing way in our relationship, our fellow beings can have any skin colour or mother tongue, any religion and any origin at all. We are tolerant and culture-denying on both our own and others’ parts, because we no longer have the inclination and competence to realise that culture is often taken seriously, that people outside the modern sphere can experience a compelling force in traditional, religious edicts and family ties.
For example, a Swedish girl can decide to place seven kinds of flowers beneath her pillow in order to dream about her husband-to-be, because this is an old tradition. But if during the course of Midsummer Eve she decides to drop this, it is not earth-shattering when she wakes up the next morning. It is she herself who decides about her life, and not tradition.
Let us avoid all ties! A number of debaters have upheld this position as a model. The English sociologist Anthony Giddens calls this kind of freedom “post-traditional.” His German colleague Thomas Ziehe has launched the concept of cultural liberation.
The dismissive attitude of traditions and established values can also be understood with the help of sociologist Max Weber’s classic division into value rationality and goal-oriented rationality. Value rationality is when the set of values governs and shapes behaviour in a distinct way. Religion and tradition are distinctly value-rational perspectives, which keep their proselytes under tight rein. To go to church every Sunday as a good Lutheran and Christian is a value-rational act.
In the secular existence of our times political parties are an even better example. In their party programmes the parties laid down their fundamental values and indicate how they intend to realise their ideals. Whether the practice then has anything to do with the ideals set forth is another matter. It is often the case that, in the pursuit of political leadership, goal-oriented rationality becomes more important than value rationality.
Goal-oriented rationality is synonymous with the motto which (incorrectly) has been ascribed to the Jesuits, namely that the ends justify the means. For example, the Swedish evening paper Aftonbladet on August 9, 2001 published staged photographs of Nazi youth giving the Hitler salute without saying that they were staged; this is a textbook example of goal-oriented rationality. We can distinguish two goals here: the first and most obvious is that it is a matter of resisting the spread of Nazism with all means. But there is another and stronger goal-rational motive: it is a matter of producing as spectacular a report as possible, with the intention of attracting people to buy copies of the newspaper. In other words a crass financial motive.
I have chosen the somewhat odd example from Aftonbladet , because capitalism comprises the best breeding ground for goal-oriented rationality. In the pursuit of money it is often a good idea to devote oneself to the slaughter of holy cows. Perhaps one can interpret it as the clash between “liberal Western value systems” and “Islamist acts of terrorism” as a clash between goal-oriented and value rationality. It is quite clear that, even if money is also necessary for terrorists in their activity, neither money nor wealth is an Islamist goal.
A credible hypothesis is that each society produces the kinds of people it needs. Future society needs future people, and what primarily characterises them is that they are free, as one can never really know what is going to happen. Individuals who are neither rooted in their clans or in their local environment therefore have the greatest opportunities to become winners. This means also that social systems are liberated from physical space.
In The Consequences of Modernity (Polity Press 1990) Anthony Giddens calls this “disembedding.” We acquire a new division into classes, where the most liberated are the most successful, those who accept and can exploit constantly changed circumstances. The real losers are those who get stuck or never succeed in liberating themselves, who adhere to unshakable ideas, who take root in a segregated local culture.
Presumably it is also in this concept that dystopias are born. It is when we rationally try to deal with the future instead of relying on either God or the political recipes for success, that we risk becoming dystopian. Faced with a vast flood of information there is no reason to keep track of everything that works, but it is precisely the threats that we have to check up on and devote ourselves to. For example, the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich attracted a great deal of attention when at the end of the 1960s he began to talk about the population explosion and how it would result in world disaster. But his calculations were incorrect, and in this as in many other bleak predictions it is the case that they have not been particularly accurate. The world has not come to an end, but is perhaps a better place for a greater percentage of humankind than it has ever been, at least in a material respect. Both India and China have rapidly growing middle classes of course, with the Western consumerist lifestyle as their ideal. This does not prevent the gloomy predictions of the future from flourishing. There is a further stage in this process, indifference. The threats and the warnings wash across us and they never end. As regards food, people sigh and say that you cannot keep track of what you may eat and what you should not eat. More people than ever eat so that they become enormously fat. Perhaps one might even say that the media dissipates the threats. When these are well defined, journalists pursue different kinds of truth-tellers in the constant hunt for new things. The old threats are overlaid by fresh new ones, quite irrespective of whether the old ones continue to be relevant.
WE HAVE TWO FUNDAMENTAL tasks as human beings. One is to ensure survival and secure a good life; the second is to find a meaning in the life we find ourselves in through no fault of our own. What is really the point in living at all? These two attitudes interact with each other, and in general terms one might perhaps say that the meaning of life is more important than the good life in material terms. A stylite living on a pillar lives a quite difficult but meaningful life. And, on the contrary, the person who is well placed materially, with comfort, entertainment and so on, may very well be constantly prey to meaninglessness. Our society is good at producing almost everything except happiness and meaning.
What Western people have really done—which historically is a strange choice—is to optimise the material things and deny the questions of meaning. In the first stage the religious world picture disappears, in the second stage secular ideologies also disappear, those which are to create the realm of happiness here on earth (Communism, Nazism, etc). Remaining in power—for how long?—is a human type that optimises his control over the future, this rational and calculating individual who sees no meaning in raising his gaze and asking questions about meaning but at bottom has a hedonist outlook on life: this time on earth has to be as enjoyable as possible. And money becomes an increasingly important measure of individual value, something that both directors and politicians and trade union leaders demonstrate these days by competing with each other and in being well paid.
However the question of the meaning of life cannot be brushed aside. It exists as ever more problematical, demanding an answer. If we go to the household god of modern life, science, there is no consolation. Rather the opposite. The first attack occurs with the critical thinking applied by Copernicus, when he deprives the Earth of its role as the centre of the universe, showing that the planet is merely one of many orbiting the Sun ( De revolutionibus orbium coelestium , On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1543). In this way philosophical thinking on the place of humankind in existence is introduced, which gets its next shot below the waterline when Darwin relativises human beings into being one biological species among others. In the eyes of science, human beings become one of many kinds of the inhabitants of an insignificant planet orbiting an average-sized star at the fringes of a galaxy which in its turn is one of billions of galaxies. What is the centre of this universe is difficult to say, but it is scarcely humankind.
This, science’s non-answer to the question of the meaning of everything is deeply unsatisfactory, in particular for young people who want to go against the stream and therefore to a greater extent prioritise questions of meaning.
Perhaps we are living in the post-modern society, but if we are doing this, we still as yet have no really good definition of what the linchpins of this society are. Advocates describe the post-modern almost as a counterculture to the modern, and the reason is that modern society by definition finds itself closest to the future. Which is why the only way modern society can be relegated to the past is to make it in tandem with the future. Possibly this is exactly what is happening. If there is something which plagues our post-modern existence, then it is the belief that the future no longer works. The dystopias are more powerful and believable than utopias, without history as far as that is concerned regaining its leading position. The principal interest is devoted to what is happening here and now; we see no continuity in development, with the result that time loses its direction. We quite simply become unsure of what kind of society we are living in. This veneer of uncertainty does not, however, prevent future thinking—in everyday life and outside intellectual circles—being both a matter of course and a necessity. The company or organisation that does not constantly plan its future survival, that believes that a continuous stream of forecasts are not necessary, would do well to begin to polish its swansong.