A Taste of (and for) Things to Come

January 22, 2012 · 0 comments

We’re all in New Orleans for science, but for the sake of technology, let’s indulge in a brief philosophy break.

We all know that the present is shaped by the past. Part of the reason is psychology: people easily recall experiences–indeed, emotions–from the past. We can even empathize with other people’s past experiences through their stories.

But philosophers note a peculiar aspect of this ability to make mental time trips. For all of our empathy for the people of the past, our anticipation of the future is much less “real” to us. Often, even the near-certain knowledge of future difficulties, or outright pain, especially if it involves other people (like our progeny!), is not enough to change our current behavior. Our minds don’t travel well to the future.

Of course, economists can tell you something similar about discounting the future–rationality about future benefits is beyond many of us. Even in our own community, climate scientists are finding that it’s a lot easier explaining to most people what’s happened than talking about what might happen. The future is just not as real as the past.

And yet, dreaming about the future is big business: it sells technology, it sells movies, magazines, books, gadgets, and world expos. Futurism is here to stay. In fact, it will be here all week, starting with Monday’s AMS Presidential Forum, which will give us all a chance to talk and dream about what the future will look like for the atmospheric and related sciences. To help start a dialogue that clearly is fascinating but more difficult to do than one might expect, AMS President Jon Malay and his forum co-chair George Komar have given this year’s plenary session a whole new, interactive style. Here they are to explain: