I wrote recently about a research project which I had begun to look at how the soon-to-be-former British colonies became independent actors on the world stage in the broader process of decolonization of the mid-20C. I’ve since bagged it. I learned a bunch of stuff along the way, but, after ~200 hours over the past year, it just wasn’t working for me. I kept finding myself trying to figure out why I was spending my time this way and I couldn’t find the ‘juice’ necessary to undertake a major research project. Ah, well….
After clearing the decks, my mind kept returning to a topic which I had started a while back and then put on deep hold: A History of the Future. My historical question (which I always push my students to articulate clearly) is how have the ways in which people have conceived of the future changed over the decades/centuries/millennia. My hypothesis is that this is a function of modernity: the shift from traditional/religious societies with shamans and the Book of Revelations to data-based projections utilizing scientific and technological tools (e.g., from almanacs to weather forecasting), rationalized and structured models (e.g. corporate scenario planning), both accompanied by a degree of confidence that the future could be estimated and perhaps managed.
I will come back to the substance as my project unfolds over the next few years. Today, I want to talk about what I found in looking at my old files.
First, a time frame: I undertook my first round of this project twenty-five years ago, i.e. 1998. Those days—1998—were filled with the future and yet they are well “past” (whatever “past” and “future” mean).
So, just looking at the notes I took and ideas I framed back then has been sobering as a reference point for how I and my approach to the issues and processes have changed during that time. I had just left PacBell and was looking for a new gig. In the meantime, I was encouraged to recharge my mental energy with something meaty and non-business-oriented and this is what I picked. I probably looked a hundred books and articles, taking detailed notes and sketching ideas and outlines; so it was “not nothing.” I found a lot of good stuff and hope to make use of this material.
As I look back on my files, the first thing that struck me was that I was untrained (or at least pretty rusty) in academic research. The bibliography I compiled is pretty meandering, embracing my own version of a comprehensive treatment of the topic, including psychology, philosophy, linguistics, history of ideas, epistemology, literature, etc. I’m sure five volumes would have been needed to contain my rambunctious (not to say undisciplined) thoughts. Of course all this took place before I had any of my more recent training in history and organizing large-scale research projects. I was working only on the fringes of academic research libraries. Indeed, it would be another seven years (and another two stops on the career path) before I would take the plunge into academic history.
The researcher/writer who produced this set of rough materials was clearly curious (if uncertain/naïve). He generated a bunch of interesting ideas, but had little context, theory, or disciplinary knowledge even to know what he was talking about. Certainly, as I was to learn in my MA and PhD programs, he didn’t know much about the history of the various events, developments, and thinkers of the past, or even the scope of the literature he was nosing into. I think I now read with a much more critical eye.
At the same time, looking at his work, I can see that some of the same themes and approaches have continued to this day. I still don’t have much respect for disciplinary boundaries. I’m drawn to synthetic thinking, pulling ideas and references from seemingly disparate sources. My core interest in the nature of human thinking or “mentalités” remains strong. I am as much interested in what ordinary folks thought and did as I am in the ideas of famous authors (from Francis Bacon to Jules Verne to Alvin Toffler). So, the same spark is still there.
My files include not a few ‘xerox’ copies of articles which I will now scan into my computer to sit alongside the pdfs. There are also dozens of “Word” documents in a format (basically Word ’97) so old that my current version (16.76) can’t even read without a file-by-file conversion. Each is a reminder of the technological history through which we have lived. So, I have a bunch of basic steps to get through before I can really re-start the project. I have to get the files in order, rebuild and refine the bibliography, then do some extensive searching for the literature on this topics that has been written in the 21C, organize the dozens of half-baked ideas on scraps of paper, and then come up with a much more detailed, thoughtful, and coherent outline.
I’ve started collecting books and articles published since I first looked at these issues. There are some new angles and anecdotes, references to sources, etc. but nothing clearly preemptive (always a concern when starting a new research project; whew!). Both in what I looked at before and now, there is a lot of pop culture and “gee, whiz” stuff. However, I haven’t found much that really tries to grapple with the change in the very conceptualization of the future; as I hope to do.
Wish me luck….