June 14, 2017

Article at The Pacific Standard

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The Future Is Now: Why We Can’t Resist the Pull of What Comes Next

Hale Crater on Mars, lined by what NASA suspects is seasonal water, September 2015. (Photo: NASA/Getty Images)

Christy Foley wants to live on Mars.

It all started in 2013, when 33-year-old Foley came across Dutch millionaire Bas Lansdorp’s plan to establish a colony on the red planet. To achieve this goal, Lansdorp had co-founded a non-profit organization called Mars One and was raising money and, even better, accepting applicants. Foley immediately began working on her submission, which included an essay, a video, various questionnaires, and a $33 entry fee. Then, late in 2013, between Christmas and the New Year, Foley got the good news. “I was goofing off [at work] because it was just after Christmas, and I was on Facebook and I read that [the emails] were going out. So I hit refresh on my email over and over again and then I screeched, and my co-worker next door to me was like—‘What? What? What?’”

Foley had made the shortlist. And so it came to be that Foley, married and working as a regional planner for the province of Alberta, announced to her friends and family that if all went well, she’d be leaving Earth for good in 10 or so years. She’d divorce her husband, have the last of her weekly dinners with her parents, gulp one final lungful of naturally photosynthesized air, and step into a ship bound for a planet devoid of all life. “I want to help shape the future and not be passive and just take what is thrown at us,” she explained to me from her home in Edmonton when I reached her via Skype.

Wanting to shape the future is a big and democratic thing right now. Christy Foley was among roughly 200,000 people around the world who applied to go to Mars. By numbers, the group was not particularly notable, dwarfed by so many proliferating groups dedicated to schemes like building a stairway to the stars, geo-engineering the climate, mining asteroids via satellite, and beaming thoughts into space in the hopes they’ll be recovered by aliens. Today, believing that we can and should “shape” the future is no longer considered quixotic or even on the nerd fringe. It’s mainstream.

In the pre-literate era, we lived in the moment, in one big now, a past-present-future instant sharpened to a razor’s edge by the demands of survival.

And yet, for most of the time we’ve been on the planet, there was no past or future. In the pre-literate era that lasted from the age of Homo erectus two million years ago to the dawn of the first organized civilizations of Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago, we lived in the moment, in one big now, a past-present-future instant sharpened to a razor’s edge by the demands of survival. Today, the Amondawa tribe in the Amazon still lacks a word for “time.” They also have no word for “month” or “year” and use no calendars, clocks, or watches. “When the leaf of the white oak reached the dimensions of the mouse’s ear,” ran native wisdom in what is now Pennsylvania, it was the moment to “plant the maize.” Time didn’t pass, it was cyclical—a repetitive constant. And, just to show you how long this kind of understanding of time held its grip, in 1821 “a group of peasants from the Yorkshire village of Thurone attempted to wall in a cuckoo in order, they hoped, to enjoy an eternal spring.”

Lacking any abstract conception of past, present, and future, people lived in an eternal flow which, despite all the rigors and hardships of pre-Starbucks life, was inherently comforting on a primal level. “People,” theorized Marshall McLuhan, “were drawn together into a tribal mesh” and partook of “the collective unconscious.” The worldviews of various tribal collectives were all about continuity and predictability. One didn’t seek to know the future or alter the future—there was no future to know. As Spanish philosopher Daniel Innerarity has written, traditional societies achieved predictability by “transforming cycles into circles and continuing along the original path.” In other words, when they thought about the future, they thought about it “as a simple continuation of the present.”

People in the tribal era didn’t have much. They did, however, have something we don’t: their collective conviction of an inevitable, ongoing present. Innerarity calls this outlook “social certainty.” The farther we’ve strayed from pre-literate cultural life, the more we have attempted to, as Innerarity argues, “compensate” for our loss of social certainty by “scientific means.”

What this means is that we’re constantly trying to smother our mounting anxiety with technology. Through science and tech, we will compensate for our lack of meaningful social ties with texting and social networking; we’ll deal with our collective lack of purpose by colonizing Mars; we’ll respond to our collapsing ecosystem by building bubbles over our cities to screen out the scorching sun, allowing us to carry on pretty much as before. All this gives us at least some sliver of reassurance that things can and will go on as they are and were forever. That, ultimately, is the powerful appeal of most so-called technological innovation: not change, but reassurance. It’s perhaps the most powerful message of all: We can build our way out of the hole we’re in and get back everything we’ve lost. Pursuing the future will return us to the past where everything was certain and nothing ever had to change. At its heart, this is our scheme: to enable us, via technology, to return to the state of certainty that lingers like a forgotten promise in the deepest swamps of our primordial unconscious.

The future occupies much more of the everyday function of our minds than we realize. Most of us contemplate what we are going to do next, or what is going to happen next, an average of 59 times a day. That’s once every 16 minutes during waking hours. At Harvard, psychologists used an iPhone application to monitor the thoughts of 5,000 people living in 83 different countries. The phone randomly paged them to ask what they were doing and what they were thinking about. A third of the time, as it turned out, people were thinking about the next thing they were going to do. As British science journalist Claudia Hammond writes in her book Time Warped, about the psychology of time perception, “contemplating the future could be the brain’s default mode of operation.”

We think of memory as being about the past, but there’s mounting evidence to suggest that memory developed as a kind of Spidey Sense for the present, an early warning system.

Harvard Medical School researcher Moshe Bar has advanced the theory that, when we daydream into the future, we are actually storing up memories we can then rely on for automatic actions. Students who were asked to picture themselves preparing for a test—finding a nice quiet place to sit down and study—got better results on the test than students who were asked to focus on a future memory of them getting their A+ test papers back. The general assumption is that when we’re not actively engaging our brains, our minds are drifting backward into memory. But what’s really happening much of the time is that our minds are dipping in and out of the past for material to stitch into mental tapestries of what is going to happen.

Most likely, the surprising energy we spend imagining the future stems from the development of our innate, adaptable skills as the ultimate scrappy survivors of the animal kingdom. We think of memory as being about the past, but there’s mounting evidence to suggest that memory developed as a kind of Spidey Sense for the present, an early warning system urging us to comb through past scenarios and apply them to the coming moment. According to John Coates, a Cambridge research fellow and author of a book about the relationship between risk and mind: “Many neuroscientists now believe our brain is designed primarily to plan and execute movement.” It makes sense. Our ability to plan and execute, to mentally time travel to an upcoming event, was the thing that soft-skinned, fragile, not particularly fast or strong humanoids developed in order to get a leg up on the many predators who wanted us for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When your brain reflexively pulls you to the future, it’s not trying to get you to think of a killer app or what planet you should focus on colonizing. It’s just trying to take care of you by extending your likelihood of survival.

Christy Foley walked me through several reasons why she thought going to Mars was a good idea for her and for humanity generally. They included a childhood memory of meeting Canada’s first woman astronaut Roberta Bondar; the argument that going to Mars would foster new technological innovations here on Earth; and the idea that if things ultimately didn’t work out for us on this planet, it would be good to have another option. In this mix of rationales, we see both the surface appeal of future—future as reflexive survival mechanism—and the deep subconscious pull of future’s promise to return us to the time of social certainty, when we lived free of (or at least freer from) the plague of mortal purposelessness.

The fact that hundreds of thousands are willing to cast aside their safe, comfortable contemporary lives to lay claim to the future shows the true influence of those two central aspects of human programming, honed over the last few million years . These are all minds grasping toward the future in largely unconscious but powerful ways. Even if we manage to override the default software of our minds, which reflexively yield to and privilege creating future scenarios as a core survival strategy, one still must grapple with the cultural hardware of humanoid society.

Up until very recently, our societies and institutions have primarily been devices to maintain order and stability, to re-assure us that things will and can and should continue just as they are. This is what we continue to strive toward, even in an age of so-called innovation and disruption.

Ultimately, we should think of schemes to shape and know the future as akin to that salty-sweet taste that triggers our brains to tell us to just keep eating and never stop. In so many cases, the pursuit of the future turns out to be housed in the empty-calories-empty-promises aisle of the grocery store. What we proudly call ”technological disruption” is really a variety of disparate and deceptively appealing ways to stave off change; to stay the same. Apps that know what we want before we do, solar-powered robots that run our errands, cars that run on the sun and the wind; plates that disappear into the air after we use them. Even as we run out of resources and options, the promise remains the same: Embracing the future will mean you don’t really have to change; you can keep doing as you’ve always done—on Mars, in a city under the sea, or as humanoid cyborgs passing virtual lives that never have to end. And guess what? This future isn’t thousands of years away. The more we clamor for it, the more we believe it, the more we are able to keep telling ourselves exactly what our brains want to hear: The future is now.

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