Future Stories: What’s Next? (2022) explains the roots of how we make decisions about the future and illuminates the urgent responsibility on humanity’s shoulders today, with a multidisciplinary approach to time informed by biology, philosophy, and cosmology.
Introduction: Finding your way to the future.
Sometimes it seems like the future is fixed, part of a cycle in which the same inevitable things happen over and over again; people are born, they live their lives, and then they die. Look at it that way, and life is predictable.
At other times, the opposite seems true – it’s like we’re sloshing around in a raging river that’s dragging us all into unknown territories. At any given moment, will you win the lottery? Stub your toe? Find the love of your life?
But if the future is somehow both fixed and changeable, that makes the whole concept of time pretty slippery. How can people be expected to make decisions when they’re not sure what they’re facing – is it the inevitable or the unknown?
Welcome to the summary to David Christian’s Future Stories. We’re about to embark on a wondrous journey together, one that starts with the most basic unit of life before going all the way into the universe’s distant future. Along the way, we’ll try to understand our place on this planet – and this timeline.
The future paradox.
Every day, every human being faces an incredible number of choices. That’s a lot of responsibility, and it can even feel overwhelming. Sound familiar? Well, here’s some good news: you don’t have as much free will as you think you do. But here’s the bad news: you’re still responsible for your choices.
If you’re scratching your head about that little paradox – or if neither of those statements sound like good news – then you’re in the right place. But before we get into it, let’s be honest: historians can’t even agree on what “the future” actually is. This problem goes back to two ancient Greek philosophers with very different ways of thinking about time.
The first, Heraclitus, believed that time flows into a future that is unpredictable, uncertain, and ever-changing – think of that raging river we were talking about a moment ago. Let’s call this A-series time. The other philosopher, Parmenides, believed that all creatures, objects, and events are fixed in time with no uncertainty and nothing new happening. We’ll call this B-series time.
Now, both of these philosophies have problems. In A-series time, it’s unclear what time is when we only ever exist in the present. When does the future become the present? How long does now last?
In B-series time, the ideas of choice, free will, and responsibility become null and void. This is called determinism. It basically means that you didn’t choose to read or listen to this summary. This moment is fixed in time. Depending on where you’re standing, it either already happened, is happening, or will happen in the future.
So how do we approach future thinking? We use a little something called compatibilism. Compatibilism is the idea that free will and determinism are compatible.
According to compatibilism, certain things are fixed – think death and taxes. But it also says that within that framework, we have choice and free will. When we understand that – when we agree that we have free will and the ability to make choices – we start to ask ourselves how we make those choices. And that’s where future thinking comes in. Making a choice means taking action that will lead to an unknown circumstance. A choice comes with uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and insecurity.
Future management can help alleviate some of those feelings and lead to better choices. It starts with recognizing the geography of the future. And while there are several ways to map out the foggy landscape of the future, it’s most useful to think of it in terms of preference and possibility.
Future outcomes come in four categories: The probable, the plausible, the possible, and the preposterous. We make decisions based on our preferred future outcome combined with the likelihood of that outcome occurring. If our preferred outcome falls on the preposterous end of things, it makes sense to compromise when it comes to that outcome. On the other hand, if our preferred outcome lands in the probable category, we may want to reach for something a little more challenging.
Future Management Skills
It turns out that the methods and mechanisms for future thinking exist all the way down to the most basic unit of life – the cell.
You may be wondering how cells can think when they don’t have brains. While it’s true that cells don’t have brains or consciousness, they do have decision-making and future-management processes. In fact, if you ever took a biology class in school, you’ve probably learned all about these.
Within each cell are a bunch of moving parts – things like DNA, genes, ribosomes, protein molecules, cytoplasm. These components are wired for survival, and they work together to achieve that goal. They speak in a simple if/then sequence and share information among themselves to make future-management decisions.
One example of how they do this is the cellular process for harvesting energy from sugar. The cell has code in the form of DNA that describes how to make a protein molecule. A ribosome decodes the DNA and follows the instructions to make the protein. The protein molecule then goes to work breaking down the sugar and turning it into energy.
But what’s interesting is how the decision to create the protein molecule is made in the first place. After all, the cell doesn’t know for certain that there will be sugar to feast on, or if there is, how much there will be.
So it follows a process that starts with preference. Remember when we talked about preferred futures? In this case, the cell knows sugar exists, and it needs energy, so it prefers a future where sugar is abundant.
The second step in the future-management process is determining the degree of probability that sugar exists. So sensor proteins make their way into the world around them to take samples. When they capture a sugar molecule, they signal the rest of the cell that sugar has been found.
The third step is taking action. Now that the cell understands there is a high probability that sugar is in the area, it goes to work creating the proteins necessary to break that sugar down into energy.
This is, of course, an overly simplified story of how the cell works, but the point is that future-management processes exist at a cellular level. They exist in single-cell organisms, and they exist within the cells of multicellular organisms like plants, pets, and people.
Plants don’t have brains, and yet their cells have goals. They check for trends and information related to probability – in a sense, by taking action, they even place bets. The famous naturalist Charles Darwin discovered this with his Venus flytrap.
The Venus flytrap won’t snap shut for just anything that lands on it. Reopening requires a great deal of energy, so the plant won’t shut unless circumstances indicate a high probability that food has arrived. For that to be the case, two of its sensors need to trigger almost simultaneously. If only one sensor is triggered, or if there’s a large amount of time between the two sensors triggering, the trap will remain open. This is future-management in action on a multicellular level.
Animals have evolved even more sophisticated future-management skills, but they continue to follow the same three steps as cells and plants. The human animal also follows these same steps.
For example, let’s say that your goal is to make a certain amount of money. Before you take any action, you’ll want to find out if your goal is plausible – or even possible – by checking for trends and information. If it is, you’ll take action. If it isn’t, you’ll change your goal.
The only difference between your choice and a Venus Flytrap’s is that you’re conscious of your decision-making process. As humans, we’ve developed nervous systems and brains that are capable of both fast and slow thinking. And even more perplexing and complicated, we’ve developed consciousness.
Future-management processes have likely existed since our earliest common ancestor’s first appearance, and they’re a major factor in how evolution occurs. And while these processes exist in all living things down to the individual cells, there’s one thing special about humans: as far as we know, we’re the first and only species able to use our free will to consciously shape the future of the planet and maybe even the universe.
Language, Religion, and Collective Learning
Before getting into the changes in future thinking over the span of humanity’s existence, let’s talk about the three types of time.
Natural time is determined by nature. Things like sunrises, changes of season, and circadian rhythms are all part of nature’s time. Next, we have psychological time, or the way we perceive time passing. For example, when you’re at work, time may seem to move more slowly than when you’re having fun with friends. The third type of time is social time. In the modern world, the workday, holidays, and school schedules often override natural and psychological time.
How we think about the future is highly dependent on our circumstances. Ten thousand years ago, the Foundational Era ended. Prior to that, people had lived in small groups. They largely saw themselves as having a place on the planet rather than having power over it. Time and the future were very personal to them and largely related to the world they lived in. They also lived in a world inhabited by spirits and unknown forces.
But as the Foundational Era gave way to the Agrarian Era, people began forming larger groups like states and managing futures on larger scales. People who owned things like livestock or property developed systems of writing to keep track of their assets. This writing became documentation which inevitably affected the way futures were managed. In short, people began keeping data, and that data allowed them to make predictions based on past patterns.
However, even with the emergence of information collection, the people of the Agrarian Era still consulted spirits, ancestors, and divinities. Even the learned Roman Cicero saw divination as a valid form of future management.
As time passed, humanity’s knowledge grew, and divination became more and more informed by past trends and information. People seeking divination might be given answers to their questions that were just general enough to apply to a wide variety of possibilities. Or they might be given guidance to help them find their own answers.
This was the time period that German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Age. It was more of a phenomenon than an era. For some reason, cultures all over the world seemed to reach new heights of philosophical and religious enlightenment at the same time.
Around 1800, technology and science were in full swing, unearthing knowledge and understanding and creating innovations and inventions at a rate that had never been seen before. Humans realized that we have the power to remake the earth into what we want. We were no longer just managing tribes or states – we were responsible for managing an entire planet.
Think of it this way: if each human being is like a cell, we’ve managed to evolve into a multicellular organism responsible for the entire body of humanity and the planet we inhabit.
Shaping the Future
At this point, the pace of change has become much faster relative to the span of a human life. Whatever the world looked like when you were a kid, it looks much different now. We’ve become accustomed to change. Desensitized to it.
What’s more, we understand cause and effect. We’ve recorded and preserved enough information from the past to see which trends typically stay the same and which ones change. In many cases, we know why change occurs.
On top of all that, we have evolved into creative, imaginative beings. We’re able to take our questions and whatever information we have and and imagine up possible futures.
As a species, our situation has vastly improved. Our potential lifespans are more than double what they would have been two hundred years ago. We don’t have to have a bunch of babies in case most of them die – we can now have one or two healthy, happy babies and be pretty confident of their survival. We’re less likely than ever before to be living in poverty.
We’ve grown in numbers and in knowledge. We’ve created a shared set of moral values. We’ve also grown in power and responsibility. As a creative species with consciousness and purpose, future management is no longer simply an exercise in philosophy but a practical and immediate concern.
What kind of future do we want? What kinds of futures fall in the plausible and possible realms? How do we avoid the outcomes we don’t want and achieve the ones we do? In the grand scheme of the future of the universe on a scale of billions of years, these questions don’t matter.
But here we are. In terms of massive population growth, economic growth, and climate change, we’re already on a path of our own creation. We’re experiencing regressions in some of our progress toward creating an equitable and safe world for all people.
So what are we going to do about it? The choices we make in the near future will determine whether humanity experiences a Star Trek era or Star Wars era – that is, one of harmony and cooperation or one of…well, one that’s not so positive. After all, we’ve barely made it off our own planet and yet we’re in the midst of a climate crisis.
We have enough information and data from past trends to see what’s coming in the next few hundred years if we stay the course. We have enough data and information to make plausible predictions about what will happen under certain changes. That’s future management. Even as you read this, your cells are making decisions in the best interest of your body. It’s likewise the job of every human being to remember the whole body of humanity when considering the future.
Future management processes have existed since the dawn of life. Even though certain factors are inevitable, we still have the ability to shape the future within the fixed framework of the physics of our universe. The fact that evolution favored choice tells us that choice matters. All life, right down to our very cells, uses the same process for making future-based decisions. That process consists of determining a goal, gathering data on trends, and taking action. Throughout the history of humankind, future management skills have become more and more important. Humanity is facing a crisis point where our decisions for the future today will determine how much future we have left.
About the author
David Christian is a Professor Emeritus at Macquarie University, where he was formerly a Distinguished Professor of History and the director of the Big History Institute. He cofounded the Big History Project with Bill Gates, his Coursera MOOCs are popular around the world, and he is cocreator of the Macquarie University Big History School.
He has delivered keynotes at conferences around the world, including the Davos World Economic Forum, and his TED Talk has been viewed more than twelve million times. He is the author of numerous books and articles, as well as the New York Times bestseller Origin Story.
Behavioral Sciences, History, Philosophy, Natural History, Medical Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Psychology
Table of Contents
Part I Thinking About The Future: How Philosophers, Scientists, and Living Organisms Do It
Chapter 1 What Is the Future? Time as a River and Time as a Map 15
Chapter 2 Practical Future Thinking: Time as a Relationship 39
Part II Managing Futures: How Bacteria, Plants, and Animals Do It
Chapter 3 How Cells Manage the Future 69
Chapter 4 How Plants and Animals Manage the Future 87
Part III Preparing for Futures: How Humans Do It
Chapter 5 What Is New about Human Future Thinking? 119
Chapter 6 Future Thinking in the Agrarian Era 143
Chapter 7 Modern Future Thinking 179
Part IV Imagining Futures: Human, Astronomical, and Cosmological
Chapter 8 Near Futures: The Next One Hundred Years 217
Chapter 9 Middle Futures: The Human Lineage 261
Chapter 10 Remote Futures: The Rest of Time 285
Bibliography of Cited Sources 327
The New York Times bestselling author of Origin Story, who Bill Gates has “long been a fan of,” turns his attention to the future of humanity — and how we think about it — in this ambitious book.
The future is uncertain, a bit spooky, possibly dangerous, maybe wonderful. We cope with this never-ending uncertainty by telling stories about the future, future stories. How do we construct those stories? Where is the future, the place where we set those stories? Can we trust our future stories? And what sort of futures do they show us?
This book is about future stories and future thinking, about how we prepare for the future. Think of it as a sort of User’s Guide to the Future. We all need such a guide because the future is where we will spend the rest of our lives.
David Christian, historian and author of Origin Story, is renowned for pioneering the emerging discipline of Big History, which surveys the whole of the past. But with Future Stories, he casts his sharp analytical eye forward, offering an introduction to the strange world of the future, and a guide to what we think we know about it at all scales, from the individual to the cosmological.
Christian consults theologians, philosophers, scientists, statisticians, and scholars from a huge range of places and times as he explores how we prepare for uncertain futures, including the future of human evolution, artificial intelligence, interstellar travel, and more. By linking the study of the past much more closely to the study of the future, we can begin to imagine what the world will look like in a hundred years and consider solutions to the biggest challenges facing us all.
“David Christian’s approach to understanding history—by exploring multiple perspectives and disciplines—can help all of us learn how to prepare for the future that lies ahead and the big challenges facing humanity.”―Bill Gates
“A head turner. Future Stories is a clarion call for us to see the past and the future together—across multiple scales—and to act for the future of our planet.”―Marnie Hughes-Warrington, author of History as Wonder
“David Christian transfers his gifts for telling big stories from the past to the future, tracing the ways in which entities from the microscopic to the cosmic approach the future. His radical scale-shifting still makes space for us humans, individually and collectively—and desperately—trying to know ‘what comes next?'”―Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Editor-in-chief of Cambridge World History
“David Christian possesses a unique gift for collecting nuggets of knowledge from all sorts of disciplines and putting them together into a superbly unified whole that brings out the beauty of the overall big picture. Origin Story provides the long run-up that gives us a way to think seriously about how we got here; Future Stories continues this ‘evolutionary epic’ and explores some of the many possibilities of the coming Big Futures that may yet lie ahead.”―Joseph Voros, Foresight educator, researcher and consultant and adjunct professor of Foresight
“Future Stories is simultaneously entertaining and sobering, and is recommended reading for anyone who may be curious about what’s ahead of us.”―Shelf Awareness
“Christian lucidly explains complex scientific, philosophical, and historical concepts. The result is a stimulating look ahead.”―Publishers Weekly