Is the Past Really Prologue?
The future isn't etched in stone. But it is determined by our actions.
“The less a man knows about the past and the present, the more insecure must prove to be his judgement of the future.” — Sigmund Freud, 1927
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There are days when life comes at you fast.
Days when it feels as if we’re being pummeled with news and developments. It’s hard to keep up—overwhelming, even.
We seem to be living with the results of our constantly evolving technology that is increasingly infringing on humanity.
Where do we turn?
Dr. Conrad Gessner, a physician, was one of the first people to raise a concern. He was respected by his colleagues and his professionalism made him a serious thinker.
So when he warned us about the effects of information overload, the world took note. In one of his five books, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that the human mind would be confused and irreparably damaged if something wasn’t done.
Today, as we’re in the midst of oversaturated algorithms, conspiracy theories, and constant interruptions from notifications, we see how Dr. Gessner’s early warnings were real.
We bemoan the unprecedented risks of living in a digital world that doesn’t seem to have an off switch. We look for digital detox opportunities and quiet spaces. This unique problem must have unique solutions.
You might be wondering how things turned out for Dr. Gessner. Well, he took his own advice to heart: he never once used e-mail and didn’t even own a computer. But he wasn’t a Luddite.
You see, his landmark book was the Bibliotheca universalis, and it was published in 1545. For Conrad Gessner the physician, naturalist, philologist and bibliographer wasn’t concerned about Facebook updates, selfies, text messages, emails, or even the Internet itself.
He was warning the world about the impending flood of information in “confusing and harmful abundance” that was about to be unleashed with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press.
Other Early Skeptics
Socrates famously warned Phaedrus against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.”
In the 1700s, the French statesman Malesherbes railed against the trend of getting news in print, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit.
We’ve been through these arguments before, and yet we still seem to find our way back to them through modern technology. The same principles apply, even though the tools are more modern.
“Life is divided into three periods: past, present, and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.” — Seneca, c. 55
The point is that while we need to be aware of our past and present, we ought not to view the future as a dystopian certainty. Gessner, Socrates, and Malesherbes warned against a future that seemed unthinkable to them. And yet, their future was no more a foregone conclusion than ours is.
They look silly to us now, but to themselves, they were making logical predictions based on their observations of the present.
Now bring yourself back to our present. With the major concerns and conflicts we see today, how are we shaping our future? How much of it is met with Chicken Little the-sky-is-falling fearmongering?
Conversely, when do we see leaders showing a path forward, with a shared vision for an improved life, driven by promising aspirations?
Every leader has the power to shape the future, informed by the past. The question is whether we lead people to that eventuality with hope or with fear.
Whichever one we choose, the outcome may be drastically different.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
The related episode of Timeless Leadership (released every Thursday) is now available. Our guest is Kate O’Neill, author of A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism Can Restore Our Humanity and Save Our Planet.