What I learned in school today…

We know the past but cannot influence it: we can influence the future but cannot know it.

So said, Stuart Brand, or something like that. It is one of those cute comments it is tempting to quote. But Andrew Curry of the Futures Company relates that once asked to reconsider it, he immediately realised it is wrong. Not the second part, but the bit about not influencing the past.

His point is about rewriting history, not in the Orwellian or Stalinist sense, but the more obvious idea that we constantly re-narrate the past from the context of the present. And at a meeting of the Futures Analysts’ Network in London this week he showed briefly how he is using this idea to help cyrstallise thinking about possible futures. The procedure is simply to produce a rough list of key historical events – those people can recall or a more intensively researched list going back further in time. Then consider a range of future scenarios and think how what are seen as the “key” past events will change, or their significance be re-evaluated.

It seems quite an illuminating idea, though not a particularly startling one to this one-time historian.

In any case, there is an alternative quote which captures the asymmetry Brand was pointing out – from an alternative guru, Kenneth Boulding: all knowledge is about the past, but all decisions are about the future. My frequently repeated observation to the same effect is that if you are in a conversation about the future the past is usually invoked within the first 30 seconds.

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