How do you draw the shape of time?

We can’t directly experience the future – we can’t observe it and there is no physical evidence to study. Yet we use the future everyday when we brush our teeth to prevent cavities, invest for our retirement, campaign for a cause, or develop a new service or product for the marketplace.

How do we understand this tool that we all use, but none of us can see?

Before reading on, take two minutes and draw a diagram of the past, present, and future.

What I learned in elementary school was that time was a line.

To the left was the past, with the dates of important events carefully noted in sequence. To the right, the future. With the present in the middle, perfectly centered. The past was the previous page, the future the next. With the past behind me, I look forward squinting to see the future on the horizon.

How we relate to time has a lot to do with the culture we grow up in.

The Aymara would draw nearly the reverse diagram of the timeline. Speakers face the past and have their backs to the future. Looking forward we can see and remember the past. Behind us is the unknown future. For the Yupno people of Papua New Guinea, time flows uphill. Compared to English speakers, Mandarin speakers are more likely to the future is down and the past is up. For Ben Franklin, time was money.

Data and Futura

In The Art of Conjecture,” economist Bertrand de Jouvenel contrasts futura – images of future realities — as with data – representation of facts. An image or project set in the future can be use like a jetty where you choose to land, or a grappling hook cast in the preferred direction. Futura often come in the form the prolongation of trends, analogies with the past, and the railroad tracks” of technological progress. Each type is flawed, and there are steps we can take to improve their quality.

Futures Cone

Another perspective on the shape of time is that the present moment is the vertex between the events of the past and a series of nesting and intersecting cones.

The narrow cone is at the center and represents the most probable future, usually the continuation of current trends with no disruptions or surprises. The next cone is the cone of plausible futures, the most likely alternative futures to the probable future. Next is the even wider cone of possible futures, low-probability but potentially high-impact futures. Many of us also have a preferable future, which may intersect with any or none of the other cones.

The simultaneous past, present, and future

People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. – Albert Einstein

Anthony Hodgson’s concept of the greater present moment, as sense of time created by the nesting of multiple smaller present moments which both remember the past and anticipate the future. We can use the greater present moment to expand the time horizon of our decision into the future.

Maybe the river of time is frozen with the the past, present, and future all coexisting.

Maybe every future is a seed in the present, waiting for the perfect conditions to burst into life and crowd out its competitors.

Challenge your default perspective

It’s a common pattern to recall the past as a series of events but imagine the future as the steady continuation of the present. But even the most probable future may not be all that likely. After all, do you really think there will be no more disruptions or surprises?

If you are a quantum physicist you probably require a precise and specialized definition of time. The rest of us can afford to be opportunistically agnostic when it comes to the perspective we take on the relationship between present, future, and past.

To create research methodologies to generate knowledge and insights about our futures, we need to equip ourselves with a range of metaphors to describe the shape of time. None will be 100% right, but they can each be useful in anticipating and adapting to change.

Think about it:

Identify an issue or opportunity in your personal or professional life. Maybe a decision you are mulling over. What changes if you take on a different perspective on the shape of time?

  • What if the past is in front of you and the future behind?
  • What if the past, present, and future are all happening at once within the greater present moment? How expansive can the greater present moment be?
  • What future is preferable but not plausible? On a scale of 1-10, how plausible is it? Why didn’t you pick a lower number?

March 15, 2023 Time 1% Foresight

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