Q&A / THE PAST AND THE FUTURE

”People’s hopes, dreams, and even fears about the future are as important as technical, scientific, and economic development”

HENRIK BRISSMAN
On whether the way we look at the future has changed over times — and how
August 23, 2021

Brissman is a Ph.D. in Intellectual History at Lund University. In his scholarly work, he’s focused on History of science and politics, and lately turned his attention to the History of future, and utopian models of society. His new book, History of the future (Framtidens historia), is about how humans have related to the future, their ideas, expectations, from antiquity to the present, in political, philosophical, religious, and scientific perspectives.  

— I have studied political manifestoes, philosophical and religious texts, scientific literature, and popular cultural expressions such as novels and films. Apart from looking at how people have thought about their future, I have taken an interest in how many have tried to practice their visions in their current situation, often in small-scale experiments such as utopian communities. The book is structured in different thematics, but with a chronological perspective, and I am less concerned with spectacular technical inventions, rather I would like to present ideas and thinking about the future especially from a political/societal point of view. The work with the book has emerged parallel to the course carrying the same name, which I teach at and am responsible for, he tells.

During which period were/are people the most optimistic?

— It is a tricky question to answer directly: historical periods are generally rather complex and even contrary. Various currents may run parallel to each other in the same era. The question is which group advocates a certain vision of the future. If it is a vision that is exclusive for the enlightened elite or a more popular vision that resonates more generally. 

— The enlightenment, during the second half of the 18th century is characterised by positivism towards the future — it is a time when the idea of the future is linked to the idea of progress. It concerns the role of politics, but also science and philosophy. A further example is the 1950s and 1960s — the period when the future, and everything modern, were positively valued. In this period, the welfare state emerged on the political scene, in Western Europe and particularly in the Nordic nations. For the majority of the population the material standard increases, and social reforms enables people to realise their dreams. Confidence in scientific and technical experts was high, and the possibilities of politics seemed endless in the form of reformism and planning ability, says Brissman.

Is the way we look at the future brighter now than previously? Or not?

— The early 2000s are characterized to a large extent by a pessimistic approach with regard to the climate crisis, energy and oil crisis, economic crisis, and difficult migration flows. Despite increasingly advanced technological development and digitalisation, many seem to have an almost dystopian vision of the future. This view is also expressed in popular culture in the form of literature and film. For a long time, we have also lacked a common story about which direction society should take. With the help of social media, various groups with diversified agendas have had an increased opportunity to present their ”truths” and their ”facts”, which has made it difficult to have a common understanding of the direction that society is currently taking.

These days, who are the most optimistic and who are more pessimistic?

— It depends on what the issue is about, but liberals, in general, are more optimistic about the future and societal development, as political developments have largely gone in their direction since 1989. Market solutions, internationalization, and reduced common societal commitments have been their motto, and societal development has mainly gone in that direction over the past 30 years. Liberals also seem to have greater faith in technological development and technical solutions to various societal problems, including the climate issue, which in turn breeds optimism and increased confidence in the future. The most pessimistic are those who, for various reasons, are disadvantaged by the development due to unemployment, reduced economic opportunities, cuts in public services where people live, and so on. They are often poorly educated and have little or no confidence in experts and established media.

The book also argues that people’s wishes and visions are just as important as material things when they predict the future. Can you explain more?

— It is a bit of a question of what is the hen or the egg, is it economic/material factors that govern the development of society/history or ideas? It is probably an interplay between material and non-profit factors, and my point as a historian of ideas is that people’s hopes, dreams, and even fears about the future are as important as, for example, technical, scientific, and economic development to understand what the future may hold, Brissman concludes.

Framtidens historia (Natur & Kultur)
Related