“We have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile… We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”
That’s the fictional Hubertus Bigend sounding off in Chapter Six of William Gibson’s fantastic 2003 novel. Gibson is best known as an author of science fiction set in the not-too-distant future. As that passage suggests, though, he is not uniquely interested in looking forward. In Gibson’s renderings, future and past might exist in some natural sense, but our ideas of them can only exist in the present, which is inherently and perpetually liminal.
In Chapter Six, the conversation continues:
“Do we have a past, then?” Stonestreet asks.
“History is a best-guess narrative about what happened and when,” Bigend says, his eyes narrowing. “Who did what to whom. With what. Who won. Who lost. Who mutated. Who became extinct.”
“The future is there,” Cayce hears herself say, “looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.”
“You sound oracular.” White teeth.
“I only know that the one constant in history is change: The past changes. Our version of the past will interest the future to about the extent we’re interested in in whatever the past the Victorians believed in. It simply won’t seem very relevant.”
I read that passage and I picture a timeline flipped vertical and frayed at both ends. Instead of a flow of time from left to right, we have only the floating point of the present, with ideas about the future and past radiating outwards and nothing to which we can moor any of it.
In a recent interview with David Wallace-Wells for Paris Review, Gibson revisits this theme when asked about science fiction as futurism.
Of course, all fiction is speculative, and all history, too—endlessly subject to revision. Particularly given all of the emerging technology today, in a hundred years the long span of human history will look fabulously different from the version we have now. If things go on the way they’re going, and technology keeps emerging, we’ll eventually have a near-total sorting of humanity’s attic.
In my lifetime I’ve been able to watch completely different narratives of history emerge. The history now of what World War II was about and how it actually took place is radically different from the history I was taught in elementary school. If you read the Victorians writing about themselves, they’re describing something that never existed. The Victorians didn’t think of themselves as sexually repressed, and they didn’t think of themselves as racist. They didn’t think of themselves as colonialists. They thought of themselves as the crown of creation.
Of course, we might be Victorians, too.
Of course we are. How could we not be?
That idea generally fascinates me, but it also specifically interests me as a social scientist. As discussed in a recent post, causal inference in the social sciences depends on counterfactual reasoning—that is, imagining versions of the past and future that we did not see.
Gibson’s rendering of time reminds us that this is even harder than we like to pretend. It’s not just that we can’t see the alternative histories we would need to compare to our lived history in order to establish causality with any confidence. We can’t even see that lived history clearly. The history we think we see is a pattern that is inexorably constructed from materials available in the present. Our constant disdain for most past versions of those renderings should give us additional pause when attempting to draw inferences from current ones.