thenextwave

Influencing the pasts

Posted in future, history, time by thenextwavefutures on 12 December, 2009

IMG_2692The so-called ‘paradox of futures work’ is that we know about the past, but not about the future, but make decisions which are intended to improve our futures outcomes. I used to use a quote from the American activist Stewart Brand to illustrate this point:

‘You can see the past but not influence it. You can influence the future but not see it.’

But it’s not right.

I was doing some futures training a few years ago, and on the second day one of the participants used a review session to question the quote. Of course, he was right; we influence the past all the time through a constant process of re-evaluation. There’s even a word – ‘historiography‘ – to describe this process of how we revisit and re-interpret the past. We can’t change the past, perhaps, but we can change its meaning in the present.

Looking at what’s left of the Walker Monument on the walls of Derry on a recent visit, it seems to be a good example of this process in action. George Walker was one of the commanders of  Londonderry during its seige by Catholic forces, and later died in the Battle of the Boyne.

A column commemorating him used to stand 24 metres above the city walls of the city, looking down over the Catholic Bogside area. It had a viewing platform at the top, and the (Protestant) City Apprentice Boys would hang from the column an effigy of the supposed traitor Robert Lundy, and burn it, during their annual commemoration of the seige.

In 1973, a year after Bloody Sunday, the IRA blew it up; only the platform is left.In one of the Protestant areas of the city there is a mural showing how the monument looked before it was destroyed.

There’s much rich work in this vein by Barbara Adam and Chris Groves at Cardiff University, which I’m starting to explore, so I may come back to this subject. In the meantime, these days I use instead a quote by the futurist Ian Wilson (which may or may not be adapted from Kenneth Boulding), which is slightly less contentious than the Brand quote:

‘All our knowledge is about the past, and all our decisions are about the future’.

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  1. […] ‘You can see the past but not influence it. You can influence the future but not see it.’ (Stewart Brand) – Influencing the pasts […]


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