Nature of Past and Future
Home Up Nature of Past and Future Implant Chips in People Chips Today Google Uni? New Radio Chips To Define Freedom Ayn Rand on Capitalism Stem Cell Free Will? Cloud Computing Heart to Heart




History Today June 2006 | Volume: 56 Issue: 6 | Page 42 - 49 | Words: 4530| Author: Lowenthal, David

The Past of the Future: From the Foreign to the Undiscovered Country

David Lowenthal argues that in recent years there has been a retreat from engagement with many aspects of the past. He suggests that, in turn, this points to an unwillingness to contend with the future.


'The past is a foreign country’, begins L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953); ‘they do things differently there’. The dawning awareness of that difference some two centuries ago and its subsequent import have engrossed many historians.  Less explored than shifting views on the past are foci on the future. What seems to lie ahead stems from, mirrors, or transmutes reactions to previous times. Both past and future have notably expanded in Western consciousness since about 1750. Over the next two centuries, the collective annals of memory and anticipation lengthened exponentially, grew more copious and capacious, and resembled the present ever less.


Scholarly pasts and futures continue to extend in time, accrue content and complexity, and seem ever more foreign. But for the lay public the past half century has reversed many of these trends. In the popular mind, both what was and what will be have shrunk, not in actual length and volume but in how these are grasped and felt. People know and care about ever briefer time spans: immediacy junks the past and starves the future. Disowning our Enlightenment legacy, we cease revering ancestors or welcoming descendants. The past, formerly guide and mentor, degenerates to domesticated pet. The future, once embraced as a friend, becomes a fearsome foe.


Up to the late eighteenth century, the past had seemed much like the present. To be sure, Renaissance humanists rediscovered an antiquity found admirable by contrast with the dark ages following; but inhabitants of all times and places were scrutinized and judged through a universalizing lens. Memorable events marked past epochs, but private and public affairs for the most part seemed driven by immutable forces and desires.


The imagined future mirrored the past. For the Christianized West, time began with the Creation a few millennia back; time would end with the Second Coming and Judgement Day. Most thought that momentous date no farther in the future than the Creation in the past. The terrestrial secular span elicited little curiosity about times past. And it evoked little speculation about the future. Few expected earthly progress or improvement. Hopes and fears, prayers and often bequests addressed not this world but that to come.


The Age of Discovery and the Enlightenment altered both past and future lineaments; science and the French Revolution transformed them. Finding exotic peoples the world over: seeing the strangeness of past ways of life in primary sources and in newly excavated Pompeii and Herculaneum scuttled convictions that behaviour was everywhere essentially similar, the path from past to present and future clear or predictable. History like geography became complicated and contingent.


From the newly-foreign past, two trains of events profoundly distanced the present. After the guillotine and Napoleon nothing could ever seem the same. Indeed, to jettison obsolete tradition for rational perfection was revolutionaries’ express intent. Those who fled Jacobin terror were trebly exiled: from home, from childhood, from customary ways. Those swept up by the Industrial Revolution were likewise distanced, from farm to factory, from country to city, from life ordered by diurnal and seasonal rhythms to one ruled by machines and clocks. Caught in the cogs of accelerating change, they were cut adrift from timeless familiar routines. And would-be revenants to ancestral homeland felt lost in alien surroundings, their nostalgia incurable.


The past became not only foreign but increasingly ancient. In Earth’s features, in fossils of extinct creatures, in planetary and stellar movements, in evolutionary processes, scientists discerned lengthening reaches of terrestrial time, jettisoning the faith that the history of the earth was practically coterminous with that of humanity. Yet to account for evolving modes of subsistence, transport, language and government, human history too got extended. Archbishop Ussher’s 4004 bc Creation became a last-ditch literalist stand, then a metaphorical trope and finally an anachronistic jest.


As the past lengthened, so did the future. Given an antediluvian Creation, why need the last trump be imminent? Fancying themselves midway in time, many foresaw a long spell ahead. The lengthened future also became more alluring. The Enlightenment invented faith in progress. Savants saw continual improvement. Science increased knowledge, nature was being tamed, diseases cured, prosperity rising, civic order spreading. Salvation was no longer exclusive to the hereafter; human advance augured paradise on Earth. 


Assurance of a better future did not lessen the urge to further its coming. Indeed, ardent endeavour was requisite to posterity’s perfecting; future well-being demanded present effort. And the gains of science magnified human responsibility. In the mid-nineteenth century computer pioneer Charles Babbage  forecast a time when echoes of all deeds done, words uttered, even thoughts unvoiced would be retrieved from stones, seas and the very air – ‘one vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered’. A past knowable in its entirety became accountable forever.


Moral imperative thus fused lengthened past with lengthened future. Zeal to further both nature and humanity spurred stewardship. Ecology like evolution showed human destiny dependent on the continuing health of the commonweal, the planet, perhaps the cosmos. And heightened concern for the future in turn hinged on informed esteem for the past; for ‘people will not look forward to posterity’, as Edmund Burke admonished, ‘who never look backward to their ancestors’.


That past has continued to expand over time, over space, in content, and in controversy. Temporal horizons beyond those imagined by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are now daily fare. Once confined to ‘Western Civilization’, history now includes all cultures everywhere. Once limited to the annals of kings and the deeds of great men, it increasingly focuses on the quotidian lives of ‘people without history’ – previously unsung women, children, workers, the poor, the enslaved, the unlettered. Every facet of life is now historicized: a vast panoply of players, a multiform narrative embracing annals of child-rearing, cookery, tattooing, funerary practices, music-making, commemoration.


History also extends ever farther back in hominid, terrestrial, solar and galactic time. Astronomy makes cognizant a 14-billion-year cosmic past; biology and archaeology lengthen human prehistory. All things are historicized: plants, animals, continents, planets, stars and galaxies acquire histories. And biological and stellar processes increasingly resemble human annals in intricacy, contingency and uncertainty. Meanwhile, human history is naturalized, integrated into the larger ecological saga. No longer a mere prologue to humanity’s play, ongoing natural history commingles with purposive thought and action. Just as the biosphere continually alters our environments, so are human seen to have impacted the Earth since prehistory. Genetic research links our DNA history with all species extant and extinct. Climate, soils, plants and animals, including symbiotic micro-organisms within us, continue to shape and be shaped by human destiny. Scientists hence become historians, and historians learn science.


The past, now longer, larger, more inclusive than ever before, is perceived in myriad novel ways. But these accretions cost the public much of what history previously promised and delivered – ordered coherence, causal continuity, consensual assurance, contextual clarity. And the newly-deepened past arouses fears similar to those unleashed by the nineteenth-century expansion of time. Then, Earth’s awesome antiquity cast disturbing doubts on scriptural history. Today, ecological historians disconcert those who found surrogate comfort in nature’s presumed constancy and regularity. Content with an Earth little disturbed by remote cosmic events, they took heart in the benign succession of seasons and in an organic natural order that stressed stability and equilibrium. But revelations of episodic mass extinctions, of recent sudden reversals of oceanic currents and climatic regimes, leaves nothing  certain any more, natural history as upsetting as human. The new past is too chaotic to comprehend, those unschooled ever less able to absorb it. While fascinated by relics and remembrances, caught up in bygone splendours and horrors, they cheer or jeer at pasts they understand less and less.


Sheer elongation deforms the past, inflating the very old and the very recent at the expense of stretches between. At one end we are obsessed by origins, prehistory, primordial antiquity. Primacy confers power and possession and status; knowing how something began seems to explain all. At the other end, we are obsessed by very recent times; personal recall has special salience; electronic media privilege up-to-the-minute data. Educators follow suit: twentieth-century events, notably the adrenalin-pumping Second World War and the Holocaust, dominate curricula.


Ancient and recent alike are sexy, accessible – and murky. Great antiquity charms because it is little known; the veriest tyro freely opines on prehistory, unlike classical, medieval or early modern times. On yesterday, too, any ignoramus is an expert eye-witness. Yet sheer recency leaves it incoherent. To sift and evaluate require the test of time. Hence we delay nominating to halls of fame, designating historic sites, erecting memorials and monuments. It takes two or three generations to sieve a trustworthy collective past from the muddle of living memory, the angst or amnesia of immediate heirs. Emphasizing the very recent detracts from the past’s entirety. It elevates fleeting fad and fashion over enduring culture.



British veterans of the Arctic convoys meet a Russian comrade, 2001 (Getty / Oleg Nikishin)


Recency and antiquity, alike engorged at the expense of intermediate eras, make the past in its entirety harder to grasp. Starts and ends are mythic, befuddled, inscrutable. What comes first and last is literally unhinged – nothing prior attaches to the primordial, nothing links beyond the latest.


Popular media further narrow the past by privileging action over reflection, empathy over critical distance, discrete events over continuity, individual over collective experience, kaleidoscopic imprint over patterned palimpsest. To be sure, historical ignorance is lamented by every passing generation. What’s new is acceptance of ignorance. The past is not shrugged off or devalued; only knowledge of it is eschewed. Being ill-informed or uninformed is no impediment to nostalgia.


The result is the loss of an enduring social framework grounded in shared cultural references. Like ignorance, the fading away of familiar terms of discourse is a complaint recurrently voiced. But today’s media and schooling lend the charge new cogency. Once-memorable people, events and idioms ebb ever sooner into oblivion.


The erosion of canonical names and dates leaves today’s young bereft of a crucial arc of connectedness, precluding fellowship with any past. Some communal references persist; mass-media consumers share sports, music and fashion repertoires. But that store of data is trivial, inchoate and ephemeral; it nourishes no discourse beyond its own short-lived icons; its substance is too thin to support a meaningful social fabric.


Some contend that the ease and speed of modern information retrieval make cultural memory redundant – why store in the mind names and dates readily found in data bases? But references at our fingertips are not the same as having them in our head. To converse, to compare, to contrast, even to consult an encyclopaedia requires a stock of common knowledge not merely on tap but ingrained in communal awareness.


For historians the past grows ever more foreign. But the public at large cannot bear so alien a past, and strenuously domesticate it. In popular media, at historic sites and museums, human nature remains constant, people unchanged from age to age. Present-day aims and deeds are imputed to folk of earlier times. Legends of origin and endurance, of victory or calamity, project the present back, the past forward. Rather than a foreign country, the past becomes our sanitized own.


The last half century has changed the repute of the future as radically as the past, but in the opposite way. Fifty years ago modernists banned the past and welcomed the future; now, yesterday shelters us from a fearsome morrow. Once friendly and familiar, the future has become not just foreign but frighteningly alien.


The collapse of future hope is recent. At the end of the Second World War many looked ahead with optimism, for themselves and for the world. To be sure, evil abounded – war, poverty, racism, pestilence, hunger were rife; resource depletion loomed. But these ills seemed curable. Science, technology and global peace held huge promise. Neither Hiroshima nor the Holocaust extinguished sanguine expectations.


The next half century largely quenched such hopes. Mistrusted for its betrayals, the future became attenuated, eclipsed, forsaken. No longer fondly envisaged by fictional time travellers, it figured as fascist nightmare: Orwell’s ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’. We bequeath a depleted if not incinerated planet under totalitarian diktat or reduced by greed and improvidence to savagery and misery, and a genocidal social order.


Habitual parlance, to be sure, still plugs a bright tomorrow. Forward-looking glee suffuses feel-good hype for us and our distant offspring. ‘We’re developing the cures of the future’, boasts the drug company Pfizer; ‘we’ll care for your great-great grandchildren’. Politicians intone similar commitments. ‘Let us build a better world for our children and grandchildren’, exhorts President Bush.  But ‘Our children – the future’ is a slogan mainly heard after it has ceased to function.


Far from welcoming what lies ahead, we ignore it as risky if not ruinous. And no wonder! For the same voices that soothe us with future dreams flood us with portents of disaster. Alongside pie-in-the-sky assurances of rejuvenated skin and flesh, revived fortunes and psyches, come doom-laden warnings of imperilled life and limb, home and workplace, land and sea and air. Human agency that traditionally ‘improved’ the Earth is now viewed with alarm; the mounting intensity of present-day impacts, unintended even more than deliberate, menaces all life over aeons to come.


Until lately the future was a technofreak utopia. Science, social engineering and giddy speed begat cornucopian prophecies. Disneyland’s original ‘Tomorrowland’ of 1956  had a hi-tech Le Corbusier look. The archetypal future was ‘a city of gleaming, tightly clustered towers, with helicopters fluttering about their heads and monorails snaking around their feet, under a vast transparent dome’, wrote Modernist historian Reyner Banham; life there would be ‘unmitigated bliss’.


Fading in the 1960s, that future was a thing of the past by the 1980s. Hi-tech gave way to hand-lettered preachments extolling pastoral virtues, with ‘windmills and families holding hands’. Banham was bemused. ‘What kind of future is that? Where’s your white heat of technology? Where’s that homely old future we all grew up with?’ It got shunted aside by the more homely past. As ‘glittering streets in the sky’ became jerry-built crime-filled slums, Tomorrowland morphed into Celebration’s leafy suburbs with lawns and white picket fences. Heritage and roots assuaged present sorrows and future perils. The past became the world’s favourite tourist destination.


From upbeat postwar prognoses, confidence plummeted to all-time lows. Otherwise shunned, the future is commonly calamitous. End-time preachers herald the horrors limned in the Book of Revelation. Worse still, it’s our own fault. Early Christian Armageddon was foreordained. But today’s envisioned endings stem from our own follies – squandering resources, eroding nature’s fabric, polluting the planet beyond recovery, perfecting weapons that invite mass annihilation.


Soon after Hiroshima the human race had seemed likely to blow itself out of existence. The thermonuclear bomb rendered tenuous all we did or built; the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ minutes-to-midnight clock vivified nuclear imminence. Many recall persistent fears that they and everyone they knew would shortly perish. Few laid future plans.



Victorian family in 1892 (Getty / Hulton)


Or so they claimed. Nonetheless, most kept on pursuing careers, marrying, buying homes, having children. ‘How could any woman even think for a minute’, wondered the playwright Alan Brien, ‘of bringing into this soon to be vaporized planet an innocent creature who would almost certainly never reach maturity?’ Yet many did. Indeed, birth rates burgeoned in the postwar baby boom. The nuclear threat strengthened the nuclear family.


Denial of the immediate future was coupled with continuing, even heightened, long-term commitments. Habituated to nesting and begetting, we reacted out of some obligation to replenish Earth in jeopardy. The Bomb apart, it was a time of expanded hope. We inherited a world freed from the incubus of global conflict. Science and social planning promised to banish famine, strife, poverty, ignorance. Few truly credited the annihilation brouhaha, We continued to conceive, bear and rear children. After all, reflected the historian E.H. Carr in 1982, knowing we’ll die doesn’t stop us making plans for our own futures.


Well beyond their own futures, the longer term engrossed my students in the early 1950s. Asked how far ahead concerned them, these eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds cared deeply about the next 150 to 200 years – as far off their own known offspring’s knowable offspring might be living. One in three expressed affinity with an unlimited future, all time to come.


Horizons that distant are now rare. The ‘future’ that concerns young people queried today is tomorrow, next weekend, next year. Few envisage becoming grandparents, even parents. Heedless of future millennia, they are reluctant to plan for their own lives, let alone for potential offspring. The bourgeois ideal of life as a career, a consecutive, cumulative, goal-driven enterprise, yields to career’s older meaning: a helter-skelter dash toward no particular destination. ‘Nothing’, concluded assessors of eleven-year-old Australians’ bleak predictions in 1990, ‘prepared us for the depth of children’s fear of their future’. ‘Nothing’, echoed an American teacher in 1999, ‘is more alarming than the impoverishment of our children’s capacity to imagine the future’.


These youngsters cannot be blamed. They only reflect their seniors and mentors. Their bleak future is ever briefer. In government and industry, ten-year plans become five, then two. ‘When I was a child’, Daniel Hillis told fellow-futurist Stewart Brand, ‘people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now [in 1993], thirty years later, they still talk about what would happen by the year 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life’. When 2000 arrived, the future vanished.


What shrank the future? What cut planners’ future in half, Hillis’ yearly, my own students’, from two centuries to two days? Loss of faith in progress; the demise of job security; the dawning conviction, without precedent, that our children will be worse off than we (a conviction they share); fear that coming calamities are unavoidable and insoluble; growing doubt that science has the skill or statesmen the will to cure social malaise or curb environmental ruin.


Future altruism succumbs to voracious immediate demands. ‘Decade after decade’, conclude economists, ‘the Nows have taken from the Laters’. Advocates of intergenerational equity are derided by economists like Wilfred Beckerman who trust market forces to guarantee future well-being, assume coming generations will be incomparably richer and more resourceful, and expect technological miracles to rid us of toxic legacies of nuclear waste, chemical pollution, corporate bankruptcies, government deficits and long-term debts dumped on our heirs.


The costs of this mind-set are manifold. Infrastructures decay for want of maintenance; fatalist apathy mounts in the face of what cannot be set right; we splurge on ourselves instead of saving for children; we even cease having them as burdensome. Parents ‘are in worse economic shape than they’ve ever been in’, judged market analysts in 2003. ‘Having a child is now the best indicator’ of imminent financial exigency. We are like Samuel Butler’s Mr. Pontifex, who enjoyed his money more than his offspring because it gave him so much less trouble. The classic SKI (Spending our Kids’ Inheritance) generation will read: ‘Being of sound mind and body, I blew it all’.


This augurs the impending depleted, congested, listless world of Peter Dickinson’s dystopian novel Eva (2001), where children ‘never thought about the future, or what was going to happen to them when they grew up’, and ‘the whole human race is thinking in shorter and shorter terms. You can’t get a bridge built. You can’t get a road repaired. People won’t invest or save’, suicide is endemic. Dickinson’s future seems well on the way.


The new future resembles the new past only in its brevity. We think ahead, if at all, for times ever nearer. Any future that compels attention is our own, not our children’s, much less humanity’s, let alone planet Earth aeons ahead. A century ago, legacies like reputations were handed down intact; estates were not spent, they were husbanded. ‘Society was working not for the small pleasures of today’, wrote J.M. Keynes, ‘but for future security and improvement’. Except among environmentalists, stewardship is now passé. What lies ahead matters ever less, and elicits little care. Self-help sages censure ‘morbid contemplation of the past or future’ and consider ‘one day at a time’ a moral imperative. ‘Make the most of now’, urges Vodafone. ‘It only exists for an instant. Then it’s gone. So … squeeze every drop of enjoyment out of it’.


Discarding duration, we reduce ourselves to Edmund Burke’s ‘flies of a summer’. And Hamlet’s ‘undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ becomes more foreign than Hartley’s past. ‘The great problem with the future’, suggests Stewart Brand, ‘is that we die there. It is hard to take the future personally, because that world is suffused by our absence’. Yet impending mortality makes us not merely undertakers but historians and seers. Although we are hard-wired by our Palaeolithic heritage to think and feel no more than two or three generations ahead, cultural history lengthens our commitment. In league with the dead and the unborn we transcend our selves. That great insight, outliving the self, was memorably broached by Burke, lent spiritual nous by Émile Durkheim, and advanced as imperative social policy by Arthur Pigou. Care of the future deserves reanimation, not least for the sake of our own sanity.


For Further Reading


Charles Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838, reprinted 1967); Reyner Banham, ‘Come in 2001’, New Society, 8 Jan. 1976; Wilfred Beckerman and Joanna Pasek, Justice, Posterity, and the Environment (OUP, 2001); Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now (Basic Books, 1999); Alan Brien, ‘The extended father’, in Sean French, Fatherhood (Virago, 1992); Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France ([1790] Yale, 2003); Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life ([1912], Free Press, 1995); Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present (Harvard, 2004);  John Kotré, Outliving the Self (Johns Hopkins, 1984); Leo Marx and Bruce Mazlish, Progress: Fact or Illusion? (Michigan, 1996); A.C. Pigou, The Economics of Welfare ([1920], Macmillan, 1952). 

bullet David Lowenthal is the author of The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985). He is currently writing The Undiscovered Country: Reclaiming the Future. This essay abridges his chapter in Keith Jenkins et al., Manifestos for History (Routledge, 2005).