Humanity has long been fascinated about the relationship between the past, present and the future – from Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ to the BBC TV series Doctor Who, there is a plethora of books, TV series, movies and other media on everything from time travel, to parallel universes, and exploring how scenarios play out as a result of the influence of many small decisions, actions or events.
In this TED talk about imagining ourselves over time, Daniel Goldstein looks at how our psychology affects decision making in the present, and the ramifications for our future selves.
Goldstein, a research scientist and psychologist who investigates how we can motivate people to make long-term ‘smart’ choices rather than short-term ‘fun’ choices, uses the example of Odysseus tying himself to the mast to protect himself from the Sirens’ song as an example of why we need ‘commitment devices’:
…a commitment device is a decision that you make with a cool head to bind yourself so that you don’t do something regrettable when you have a hot head.
But Goldstein has spotted two flaws in ‘commitment devices’, such as contracts with yourself – firstly, they are disempowering, a reminder that you have yielded self-control to an external source of discipline. What about when we find ourselves in situations where there is no commitment device in place?
Secondly, you can always weasel your way out of them. Like gamblers who don disguises to get past their own self-imposed bans to casinos, you can always justify breaching your own rules:
You’re binding yourself, and you’re weaseling your way out of it, and then you’re beating yourself up afterwards.
Who hasn’t done this with something to which they are susceptible? Chocolate. Alcohol. Exercise. Credit cards. Smoking. Procrastination. Goldstein notes in his talk:
…as the 19th century English economist Nassau William Senior said, “To abstain from the enjoyment which is in our power, or to seek distant rather than immediate results, are among the most painful exertions of the human will.”
…it’s difficult to resist temptation is because it’s an unequal battle between the present self and the future self…the present self is present. It’s in control. It’s in power right now….And the future self is not even around. It’s off in the future. It’s weak. It doesn’t even have a lawyer present. There’s nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams.
Goldstein goes on to talk about the application of this theory to financial savings, which – aside from being a sore point for many people currently reeling from financial impacts resulting from decisions that were beyond their capacity to influence – misses an opportunity to apply this thinking and theory to many immediate and longer-term social concerns, such as discouraging reckless driving and encouraging healthy lifestyle and dietary choices.
Extrapolating this from the self to the species, how could we scale up such an approach in relation to sustainability to compensate for our tendency to ‘discount’ the future, and to overcome our increasingly short-term psychological timeframes – the media soundbite, the next quarter’s financial figures, the three-four year electoral cycle? How can we possibly reconcile our present and future selves with this kind of mindset?
One of the intriguing aspects of Goldstein’s work is that he is working on ways to ‘change people’s relationship to the future self without using commitment devices…in particular, assisting people’s imagination and help them imagine what it might be like to go into the future.’
Visioning has long been part and parcel of many kinds of change-work, but are there practical, tangible ways to bring the future into the present that would ‘speak’ to people?
The Long Now Foundation has a number of projects designed to both capture people’s imagination and stretch out our conception of what we think of as ‘now’. The term ‘long now’ was coined by Brian Eno after a conversation he had with a New Yorker shortly after he first arrived in the US:
“Do you like it here?” (Eno) asked. “It’s the best place I’ve ever lived”, she replied. “But I mean, you know, is it an interesting neighbourhood?” “Oh, the neighbourhood? Well that’s outside!” she laughed.
At the time, Eno – who as a European was used to a bigger ‘Here’ of a neighbourhood, not an apartment – dubbed it this attitude ‘The Small Here’. He then noted that a similar, very local attitude to space was also in New Yorker’s attitude to time:
Everything was exciting, fast, current, and temporary. Enormous buildings came and went, careers rose and crashed in weeks. You rarely got the feeling that anyone had the time to think two years ahead, let alone ten or a hundred. Everyone seemed to be passing through. It was undeniably lively, but the downside was that it seemed selfish, irresponsible and randomly dangerous. I came to think of this as “The Short Now”, and this suggested the possibility of its opposite – “The Long Now”.
Perhaps the best known of the Foundation’s projects is the 10,000 Year Clock, currently under construction in Texas, USA.
Images of first prototype of Clock of the Long Now, completed 31 December 01999
I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.
Clock of the Long Now conceptualiser, inventor & designer, Danny Hillis
Such a clock invites us to lift our gaze from the daily tyranny of the way we’ve structured time, to look further into the future than even our own lives – and to remember that intergenerational equity remains a foundational principle of sustainability. If a clock can last 10,000 years, can we, as a civilisation? What would we need to do to ensure we’re going to hear that cuckoo the tenth time?
The Long Now Foundation is providing an important cultural counterbalance to short-termism, but to address our immediate personal and collective sustainability challenges, perhaps we need to find a happy medium of psychological time – one that is not too ‘close’ or short-term, but one that is not too ‘far’ or long-term.
We urgently need to find ways to adapt our personal, societal, political, organisational and economic structures so that we can reconcile our individual ‘here and now’ with our collective ‘long now’.
Have you ever tried any ‘commitment devices’ on yourself? Did they work? Why, or why not?
If we can find a way to influence people’s decision making for the wellbeing of their future selves, can we apply this to influence humanity’s decision making for the wellbeing of humanity’s future, and that of future generations? Would the same principles work?
Are you aware of any other projects or research that seeks to ‘compress’ time, or effectively brings the future into the present with respect to decision making?
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