The Future Seems Shiny

The future is not the realization of our hopes and dreams, a warning to mend our ways, an adventure to inspire us, nor a romance to touch our hearts. The future is just another place in spacetime. (more)

Our minds have two very different modes (and a range between). We model important things nearby in more detail than less important things far away. The more nearby aspects we notice in a thing, the more other nearby aspects and relevant detail we assume it has. On the other hand, the more far aspects we see in something, the more other far aspects we assume it has, and the more we reason about it via broad categories and relations. (More on near vs. far thinking here and here.)

futurecloudcity

Since the future is far in time, thinking about it tends to invoke a far mode of thought, which introduces other far mode defaults into our image of the future. And thinking about the far future makes us think especially far. Of course many other considerations influence any particular imagined future, but it can help to understand the assumptions your mind is primed to make about the far future, regardless of whether those assumptions are true.

futurebuildingFor example, since we expect things further away in time to also be further away in space, we expect future folk to live further away, such as in space, and to habitually travel longer distances. Since the distant past is also further away in time, we also expect past folk to live further away and travel longer distances, but the many concrete details we know about the past reduces this effect.

Since blue light scatters more easily than red, far away things in our field of view tend to look more blue. So we expect future stuff to look blue. And since blue stuff looks cold, we expect future stuff to look cold. Finally, since we expect far away things to have less detail, we tend to imagine them with fewer parts and flourishes, and less detailed textures and patterns. The future is not paisley.

And in fact, if you Goggle “futuristic style” images, you’ll tend to see images like those in this post – simple, smooth, cool, blue, and sky/spacy.  In a word, “shiny.”

jane_jetsonWe also tend to assume there are fewer relevant categories of far things. So we’ll tend to assume future folk have fewer kinds of food, furniture, cars, houses, roads, buildings, and land uses, whose styles of use vary less from place to place. Instead of seeing a million variations bleeding into each other in dizzying complexity, we tend to assume there are fewer more discrete types, with less variation within each type and larger differences between types. For example, futuristic movies often have everyone wearing very similar clothes.

Another example is that we tend to assume future creatures are divided into relatively distinct groups whose internal divisions are less important. And since creatures that are more different seem further in social distance, we expect future groups to differ more from each other than current groups. So we expect eloi vs. morlock, romulan vs. klingon, ape vs. human, human vs. robot, etc.

Far tends to be happy, and high in status, power, and confidence. Conformity and obeying authority is near, but supporting underdogs is far. Sex, money, and temptation tend to be near, while love, satisfaction, trust, and self-control are far. So we often assume future folks have forgotten how to have sex, as in Sleeper or Barbarella, or that money motives are less common, as in Star Trek.

jetsons_firebirdIn far mode we tend to focus more on our simple abstract ideals and values, relative to messy desires and practical constraints. We also tend to neglect our messy internal contradictions and conflicts, and therefore assume our values and actions are coherent and consistent. So in far mode we tend more to explain good acts as virtue, and bad acts as vice or evil.  We assume future folk are less driven by base desires, more strongly committed to their ideals, less tolerant of domination, more morally enlightened, and more morally judgmental about others’ failings.

We therefore tend to assume that future folk feel relatively moral, confident, and strong, and that future groups have less trouble coordinating to achieve common ends (making us especially blind to coordination being hard). So we can more easily imagine stark uncompromising conflicts between distinct future groups. Of course robots will war with humans, we think. And since we tend to feel more moral and uncompromising about the future, we more accept future uncompromising self-righteous conflict, relative to such conflict today.

futurehouseMath and logic analysis is near, while creative analogy is far. So we tend to reason about the future via analogy rather than precise analysis, feeling more comfortable using metaphors and broad concepts like “exploitation”, “progress”, “boredom”, or “intelligence.” Math models of the far future are quite rare. Far mode minds tends to be more confident in the trends or theories they use, making them especially confident in trends and theories used to forecast the far future. Rather than seeing our theories about the future as weak all-else-equal tendencies, we are tempted to see them as absolute laws with rare exceptions.

We also tend to assume that future folk themselves rely more on analogy than analysis. They may have great tech, but we tend to see it arising more from rare sparks of creative genius than from vast armies devoting decades of attention to mind-numbing detail.

futureinteriorLikely familiar events are near, while unlikely novel events are far. So we think it more likely that “there be dragons” in distant lands. Scenarios that would seem too unlikely to consider today can seem reasonable possibilities for a far future. In fact, we may well reject future scenarios that don’t seem strange enough.

While we tend to imagine that trends during the future will be followed with few deviations, we are pretty willing to believe theories which predict that today’s trends, even long term trends, won’t continue into the future. For example, even though natural resource prices rarely rise, we are willing to believe theories that resources will soon “run out”, so that prices greatly rise.

futuresinkSince important things seem nearer to us, stronger emotions feel nearer, and so we have weaker motives and emotions regarding far things. Instead of being filled with elation or terror regarding good or bad things that might happen in the far future, we tend to treat such events more philosophically, and to assume future folk will do so as well. In a scene from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, a woman is willing to die to donate a liver after she’s seen how vast is the universe. Similarly, in far mode even human extinction may seem no big deal; “it was our time to go.”

Tasting and touching tend to feel near, while seeing and hearing tend to feel far. So we mainly imagine what the future looks and sounds like, relative to its taste or touch. Words and polite speech tend to be far, while voices, grunts, and slang tend to be near. So we more often imagine future folks’ polite words than their earthy sounds. We imagine future folk being relatively cerebral – we see them as relatively patient in listening to long intellectual speeches, and less often imagine their grunts or wild passionate music.

Of course it remains possible that many of the above far-mode-based expectations about the future will be realized. Maybe stuff in the future really will be simple, smooth, blue, and cold. Maybe future creatures will be spread across space, habitually travel far, and be divided into a few distinct types that vary greatly between types, very little internally, and coordinate well to achieve group ends. Maybe future folk really will be more driven by abstract ideals, with moral judgements driving uncompromising self-righteous conflict between groups. Maybe their innovations really will come from a few geniuses. Maybe the future will be very strange, yet is predictable from powerful theories available now. Maybe future trends really will have few deviations, and future folk will accept their demises philosophically. But please at least consider the possibility that you expect such things not because you have strong supporting evidence, but because your mind was just built to expect such things.

Added: Coincidentally, I was just quoted in this NPR article saying the future isn’t what it used to be.

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  • http://dhyb.blogspot.com Andy Wood

    Since red light scatters more easily than blue,…

    You’ve got that the wrong way round. See here.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Oops – thanks, fixed.

      • Robert Koslover

        OK, now I’m curious about something — I didn’t see the post before your correction, but did it really previously say “Since red light scatters more easily than blue, far away things in our field of view tend to look more red.” I doubt that, since it would not have supported the rest of your essay. So… did you correct the red vs blue scattering comment yet keep the conclusion unchanged? Really? That might have ben the literary and/or elegant thing to do (and I admit that there is something to be said for that) but it would hardly be logical. So please confess – are you guilty or not guilty? :)

      • Constant

        Robert, the correction yielded a correct argument and conclusion, so was hardly illogical. If anything was illogical, it was the original argument and conclusion. But Robin admitted that error. So what’s the problem? Must robin retain his original garbled illogic – reversing both argument and conclusion in order to preserve the original illogic – in order to be logical? That hardly makes sense.

  • Tim Tyler

    “Since blue light scatters more easily than red, far away things in our field of view tend to look more blue.”

    That would actually make most distant objects appear more yellow.

    • Constant

      Sure, blue light from distant objects would presumably scatter, leaving them yellow, but this effect is evidently overwhelmed by the scattering of sunlight by the air – leaving the sun looking slightly yellow (just as you predict) but leaving everything else looking slightly blue. Do you see why? If not, consider this. Between you and a distant object is a lot of air. Sunlight hits that air, and the blue is scattered. Some of that blue is scattered in your direction. So when you look at a distant object, a lot of what you see is blue light from the sum scattered off the air between you and the object. Consequently, the object looks blue.

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        Whether you get more blue or more yellow would appear to depend on the intensity of the object you are looking at – relative to the ambient light level. But yes, many day-time distant objects at ground level will be dark.

  • Nick

    I’m worried that your use of Construal Level Theory fails in some of these cases because it explains too much. Try using your arguments to make predictions about the past, or about distant places. Example:

    Far tends to be happy, and high in status, power, and confidence. Conformity and obeying authority is near, but supporting underdogs is far. Sex, money, and temptation tend to be near, while love, satisfaction, trust, and self-control are far. So we often assume future folks have forgotten how to have sex, as in Sleeper or Barbarella, or that money motives are less common, as in Star Trek.

    Doesn’t the same argument suggest that we’d think that past folks and far away folks have forgotten how to have sex, or that monetary motives are less common in far away places?

    Similar questions about this quote:

    So in far mode we tend more to explain good acts as virtue, and bad acts as vice or evil. We assume future folk are less driven by base desires, more strongly committed to their ideals, less tolerant of domination, more morally enlightened, and more morally judgmental about others’ failings.

    Do we really think similar things about spatially distant/past people?

    • michael vassar

      In particular, it seems to me that in the distant past we tend not to see people as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. We judge Stalin FAR more harshly than Napoleon, and Napoleon FAR more harshly than Alexander.

      • Robert Koslover

        I think your basic point about recent vs distant past is valid, but your example is not the best. Stalin really was far worse than Napoleon. Now, comparing Napoleon vs Alexander is a different matter entirely. Please don’t try to sanitize Stalin; he truly was one of the most evil humans to ever walk the face of the Earth.

      • *.*

        It is pure religion. Why should I weigh lives of the people killed by Alexander or Genghis Khan to those killed during the last century? It is no bias to overcome. I am fortunate not to know of (have) anyone of my family like this, but I guess that stronger emotions against Stalin are induced simply by having alive people in the society remembering those times.

      • *.*

        Is it a bias to remember your own life story more than the stories of all the humanity since the big bang? ;)

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      These are weak all else tendencies, which can be overwhelmed by other tendencies. Other tendencies are much weaker about the future, so these weak near-far tendencies shine through more easily.

  • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

    Good article, but a few quibbles about the linked pdf:

    If our descendants are expanding as fast as they can, then the ones on the frontier will never have a chance to “catch up” if they fall behind. They will be descended from the ones who didn’t fall behind and they will not have evolved any adaptive behavior to non-frontier conditions.

    Also, you say that it might be possible to destroy an oasis, but not possible to conquer them, but by conservation of matter and energy, whatever resources were at the oasis would survive almost any attack. An advanced civilization would still be able to extract them. For example, suppose the Earth was nuked so thoroughly that nothing survived. It would still be possible to turn the large percentage of the Earth’s crust that is silicon into photovoltaic collectors and harvest solar energy. Not a big deal for an advanced civilization.

    On the other hand, it might not be so easy to destroy the civilization at an oasis – I’m not sure what it would take to destroy a Dyson Sphere. But if you can destroy it, you can conquer and colonize it, and if you can’t conquer and colonize it, you can’t destroy it.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      There will remain random influences on who goes how fast, allowing those that fall a bit behind a chance to catch back up. Even if all the resources remain at a “destroyed” oasis, the speed and ease with which one could recruit those resources might be greatly reduced.

      • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

        It’s true that it would be slower to rebuild a planet that was nuked into a cinder that it would be to get value out of taking a developed one as is, but how much of a difference would it really make, especially when you’re dealing with sublightspeed travel on multilightyear scales?

    • roystgnr

      Mass-energy is conserved; entropy is not. It’s much easier to ruin resources than to improve them.

      In particular, it is currently easier to destroy a target than to exert even relatively incomplete control over it – if President Bush had merely wanted to destroy Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, the military task would have been done with a few thousand of ICBMs in a few hours, not hundreds of thousands of men over many years.

      That calculus may change with future technology, but I suspect the dichotomy will only go further in the same direction. Conquering a Dyson sphere around a distant star, to pick your example, at least requires you to accelerate and decelerate enough military power to hold your conquest. To destroy the same Dyson sphere, you just don’t decelerate.

      • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

        True, but the claim is not that destruction followed by conquest would not increase entropy, but that it would increase resources available to the conqueror. My civ with damaged resources > your civ with undamaged resources.

  • http://twan.home.fmf.nl Twan van Laarhoven

    Let me offer an alternative hypothesis for some of the points you raise in this post: fiction bias. Most people think about the future only in terms of stories, in particular through books and Hollywood movies. It makes sense that in these futures interesting events happen, otherwise the story would be boring.

    That also explains why innovations are made by creative geniuses. Lone heroes are interesting, while large groups of people doing hard work are boring.

    Especially for older movies the shininess comes at least in part from the cost of designing complicated sets. I think this has become an aspect of the future in our culture, we expect the future to look similar to previous depictions. I don’t know whether other cultures without this prior exposure would also view the future as shiny.

    Of course you could argue that stories are far, and I agree. But that applies to all stories, not just those about the future. It is just that for the future we don’t have much to go on besides these stories.

  • gaffa

    Great post.

    • JenniferRM

      I agree… when I want to link to near/far bias when it comes up in digital conversation, *this* is my URL of choice from now on :-)

  • Evan

    While I agree with a lot about this post there are a few items you list that I think could be explained better with alternate hypotheses. Twan van Laarhoven has already beaten me to the Fiction Bias, but I have a few others:

    we expect future folk to live further away, such as in space, and to habitually travel longer distances

    I really think this is just a ready extrapolation from the trend that people have been living further and traveling farther over the last couple centuries.

    So we’ll tend to assume future folk have fewer kinds of food, furniture, cars, houses, roads, buildings, and land uses, whose styles of use vary less from place to place. Instead of seeing a million variations bleeding into each other in dizzying complexity, we tend to assume there are fewer more discrete types, with less variation within each type and larger differences between types. For example, futuristic movies often have everyone wearing very similar clothes.

    I find it far more likely that the explanation for this is simple laziness. Designing fashions, buildings, etc. takes time. Constructing movie sets and costumes is expensive. It makes sense to deemphasize these aspects of the future, especially if they are not the story’s/prediction’s focus.

    We assume future folk are less driven by base desires, more strongly committed to their ideals, less tolerant of domination, more morally enlightened, and more morally judgmental about others’ failings.

    That could also be because we wish we were like that and optimistically hope our descendants will be like that.

    Scenarios that would seem too unlikely to consider today can seem reasonable possibilities for a far future. In fact, we may well reject future scenarios that don’t seem strange enough.

    That may be true of hard-core SF fans and futurists, but most people I know think I’m silly if I say the future will be very strange compared to the past. The hard-core SF crowd is presumably different because they are knowledgeable enough about history and such to know that the past would think we’re weird, or maybe because they just love weird things.

    I do agree that temporal distance does make some future scenarios seem more likely. I think an author who wrote a weird futuristic book would probably get less flack than one who wrote a weird Alternate History book.

    So we more often imagine future folks’ polite words than their earthy sounds. We imagine future folk being relatively cerebral – we see them as relatively patient in listening to long intellectual speeches, and less often imagine their grunts or wild passionate music.

    I think this might partly be due to all the messed up evolutionary theory floating around when futurism was getting started, rather than far thinking. Early futurists assumed future people would evolve into emotionless supermen, based on their false understanding of evolution. That portrayal of emotionless intellectual future people has survived long past its origin in bad biology.

    That being said, a lot of the rest of this post really rings true to me, and I’m sure even the alternate causes that I postulated were aided in gaining credence by their appeal to far-thinking.

  • Luke Grecki

    “Math and logic analysis is near, while creative analogy is far.”

    Why would that be? Math likely has the most abstract concepts of any field of human knowledge, so thinking about math seems like it should engage far mode according to CLT.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      I don’t think much of the far/near dichotomy, but this should be pretty obvious – math and logic require work and focus on the details of the argument, both near functions; while creative analogy benefits from, almost requires, a vague sort of smearing together of details, like looking at something from a distance where details aren’t visible.

  • David C

    Wow, I’m such a nerd. Not only do I recognize that the first picture is Cloud City, but I’m also nearly positive that the picture is from the concept art for Rogue Squadron because of the platform for the Bespin gas containers where most of the level takes place.

  • Matt

    @ David C

    You are my hero. Be proud of your knowledge!

  • Deoxy

    Almost all of those things seem to be better explained as “science fiction writers tend to simplify the parts they aren’t as interested in”, or a few other points about writing fiction (or making movies – the “all clothing is similar” bit is a great example of that one).

    Hmm, looking back of the thread, I see Twan van Laarhoven has already made a point very similar to this. I think that’s a MUCH better explanation of the VAST majority of the things you mentioned.

  • Ursus

    I used to look at picture books of spaceship drawings and they were always yellow and green and red, with lots and lots of detail.

    Also there is plenty of artwork of ancient times that use dark and natural colors

    I think your premise is a better explanation that it’s hard to illustrate the future, so people do it simply since that’s faster and easier and comes in on budget.

  • Was_it_really_greener

    I wonder if this would explain the nostalgia folks tend to feel toward the “distant” past? It always seems to have been rosier then, as opposed to now.

  • taxdiva

    check out terasem movement and cyberev.org for organizations focused on the future and cyber reality.

  • Napoleon

    I was a decent guy. Why are you people always cracking on my height?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Razib analogizes our assumption that stone-age people didn’t eat grains with our imagining a race of aliens as more homogenous in their religious beliefs than us.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Good example.

  • Buck Farmer

    Robin, have you looked at portrayals of the distant future, fantastic lands, etc. in other cultures or time periods?

    I am thinking particularly of the Medieval mindset which is said to have viewed the past and the future as being more or less like the present (that is up until Judgement Day).

    Pre-modern Chinese thought tended to view the future as likely getting worse and worse the further society got from the Zhou dynasty.

    The Norse don’t seem to have had a very optimistic view of either the distant past or the far future.

    My concern is that you may be picking up on a very culture-specific conception of Progress as opposed to evolutionary/universal forces.

  • noematic

    Simplicity seems to be an intrinsic part of how we perceive future life – what supports the contention that future people will have a greater preference for simplicity? The means to achieve it? Is this just hopefulness on our part?

    • Buck Farmer

      noematic, I’d say this is more a result of the self-conscious attempts to break with historical influences during the early 20th century Modernist art and design movement.

      The Classical, Romantic, Symbolist, etc. movements were all seen as innovations (or alternately reforms of previous movements) but not all simplified their predecessors.

  • ChooseyBeggar

    You said we expect people to live further in space. Distance is farther, metaphorical distance is further.

    I expect us to live in cycles, as we always have. A renaissance here, oppression there, resistance will dominant anything new that doesn’t offer convenience. Our next likely scenario will be worldwide catstrophe followed by technocracy ruling over labor slaves. Basic commodities are being depleted at an alarming rate. It’s almost inevitable. Human rights and other fine rules are likely to go out the window as nations crumble under the weight of governing a human surplus while attempting to control increasingly scarce resources. The time to overcome it is NOW. We must actively safeguard human rights and fight to conserve pottable water, wood, access to iron, oil, rare elements to see they are no longer squandered to keep stocks viable. And thats only the beginning.

    We may not outlive our next pass through the cosmic cloud. Spacefaring is more than an ideal, it’s virtually a must. Even colonies in orbit may ensure the survival of the human race, come another planet killing asteroid.

    But deciding what the future holds is a question of time. And thats like trying to decide how to handle a snake you can’t see well enough to be sure what kind or how big it is. With your bare hands. Pronto.

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  • Drewfus

    The future is higher quality. The future is uncertain. Therefore the future is a trade-off between quality and uncertainty.

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