Audience Dialogue

Quotations on the future


"How can you research the future?" people keep asking. "It hasn't happened yet." I argue that the past is either forgotten, or it hasn't finished happening yet, either - nor will you understand the present till it's over. So we know as little about the future as about any other time.

"Future: that period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true, and our happiness assured." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary.

Without expectations, there's no future, only an endless present. (François Jacob, Nobel prizewinner for medicine, noted in The Possible and the Actualthat a sense of the future is one of the few properties that distinguish humans from animals.)

Is the future really in the past - and vice versa? Suppose that time really runs backwards, not forwards. If so, we wouldn't know it, because we'd be growing backwards too. - Stuart McCready, in The Discovery of Time.

"When we have understood the present, it has become the past." - Andrew Abbott, Time Matters.Therefore (sliding ahead in time) could it follow that when we have understood the future, it has become the present? But why not?

"The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present." - Wyndham Lewis, c.1930 (quoted in Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media).

"I have seen the future, and it is still in the future." - James Gleick, 2002.

"The future isn't what it used to be." - Lots of people said this. Google offered 1,990 references in May 2003. An article in Futuresfor August 1986 attributes it to the French poet Paul Valéry, c.1945.

Does the concept of the future have to exist? Maybe there are languages with no word or concept for future. (Where time seems to stand still? Khmer?)

"Nothing is as bleak as the future, except the past." - Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Lincoln and Guba's Laws of TIme:
"1. Things always take longer than they do
2. While the first 90% of a project will take 90% of the project time, the other 10% of the work will also take 90% of the project time." [Lincoln and Guba, Naturalistic Inquiry, 1985]

"What we call our future is the shadow that our past projects in front of us." - Proust, A l'ombe des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1918.

If the future is predetermined, then we can know it in advance. But if we can know it in advance, we can change it, so it's not predetermined. - Futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel, possibly in The Art of Conjecture.

"It is proof of Trotsky's farsightedness that none of his predictions has yet come true." - A fan of Trotsky, communist leader, c.1930.

"Once upon a time...the storm of the past overtook the storm of the present, or the storm of the present the storm of the future." - John Barth, Tidewater Tales.

"Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous." - Jim Dator, futurist. (This useful statement is known as Dator's Law.)

"The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another." - Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah.

"We cannot prevent the future from becoming the past." - St Augustine, Confessions, book XI.

"The mind, which regulates this process, performs three functions, those of expectation, attention and memory. The future, which it expects, passes through the present, to which it attends, into the past, which it remembers." - St Augustine's Confessions,Book XI.

"There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don't know, and those who don't know they don't know." - J K Galbraith, economist.

Three riddles of time, from an article by Joseph Cornish:
1. What does not exist and never has existed, yet is our most precious possession, because it is all we have left?
2. What is the source of all our knowledge, yet one we are powerless to change because it no longer exists?
3. What is the only time in which we can think and act, yet is only a boundary, with no existence of its own?
Can't work out the answers? Consult "Three Paradoxes of Time" on page 32 of The Futurist,for July-August 2001.

"The future is already here - it's just unevenly distributed." - William Gibson, science fiction writer. (Implication: find where it's happening already: you could be next.)

"Everyone can see the future, but no one remembers the past." - Alexander Sokulov's film Russian Ark(2003).

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps in time future
And time future contained in time past."
- T S Eliot, Four Quartets.

"No two men living at the same time live in the same time." - Elliott Jaques in The Form of Time,1982.

"In reality there is only the present, because the past no longer exists and the future does not exist yet. Of the past and the future only the images exist, and these only in the present in our minds. The future, like the past, is but an 'extension' of our minds." - Jean-Claude Schmitt in Medieval Futures(UK, 2000).

"...History is not just events and chronology, it is carried forward in the human consciousness. The past is alive in the present, and may be shaping the emerging future." - Pettigrew, Woodman and Cameron, "Studying Organizational Change and Development", Academy of Management Journal,August 2001.

"What makes the future different from the past is the choice that the participants are obliged (and privileged) to exercise on the basis of their imperfect understanding." - George Soros, Open Society.

"It may be the case that Fortune is the mistress of one half our actions, and yet leaves the control of the other half, or a little less, to ourselves." - Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter 25.

"Law XLC: One should expect that the expected can be prevented, but the unexpected should have been expected." - Norman R Augustine, Augustine's Laws.

"Looking at the future disturbs the present." - Gaston Berger, French futurist, c.1964.

"Images of the future are a redefinition of the present in terms of a mythical past." - Frank Hearn, Politics and Society, 1975.

"Forecasting is not a respectable human activity and not worthwhile beyond the shortest of periods." - Peter Drucker, Management.

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." - Kierkegaard, 19th century philosopher.

"Whatever will be will be.
The future's not ours to see."
- Doris Day, singer, Que Sera Sera.

"The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented." - Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future, 1964.

"There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man's reason has never learned to distinguish between them." - Bernard Berenson, The Decline of Art.

"All plans imply an attempt to impose the values of the past...on the future." - Alvin Toffler, 1969.

Karl Popper, in his book The Open Universetried to prove that the future is unpredictable: because we can't anticipate the knowledge our descendants will have, we can't forecast what they'll do. We cannot know what they will know, because our brains are no faster than theirs will be: it would take us so long to know what they know that the future would already have arrived.

The future is a foreign country, and we don't know it. We all recognize that. As for the past: we think we know it. And the present we know as well as the back of our hands. But what if we are wrong? Perhaps we pretend that we know the present well and the future not at all. What if we know the future as well as we know the present, but we are afraid to admit it? (See David Loye's book The Knowable Future.)

"The knowledge of future things is, in a word, identical with that of the present; it is a knowledge in repose and thus a knowledge transcending the processes of thought." - Plotinus, ancient Roman philosopher.

Marriage... combines the strengths and wills of two young people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than they did before - Rilke, German poet, Letters to a Young Poet.

"Whatever hasn't happened yet will happen, and no-one will be safe from it." J B S Haldane, biologist.

"The only certain thing about the future is that it will surprise even those who have seen the furthest into it." - E J Hobsbaum, historian.

"As for the future, your task is not to foresee but to enable it." - Max Jakobson, Finnish diplomat.

"For I dipped into the future"... Tennyson.

"The future is purchased by the present." - Dr Samuel Johnson.

"The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past." - Milan Kundera.

"Who controls the past controls the future... Who controls the present controls the past." - George Orwell.

"The supreme value is not the future but the present. The future is a deceitful time that always says to us, 'Not Yet,' and thus denies us... Whoever builds a house for future happiness builds a prison for the present." - Octavio Paz, Mexican poet.

"Lack of foresight's what marks us out as human." - a character in Instances of the Number 3, novel by Salley Vickers.

"The future has waited long enough. If we do not grasp it, other hands, grasping and bloody, will." - Adlai Stevenson, US politician, c.1960.

"I did not say the future could be foretold but I said that its conditions could be foretold." - H G Wells, science fiction writer.

"It is the business of the future to be dangerous." - Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher.

"I have made good judgements in the past. I have made good judgements in the future." - George W Bush, president.

"Notice: Tomorrow has been cancelled. The day after tomorrow has been postponed and will now occur on the following day." (Found in an old notebook. Did I invent that - or is it an old chestnut?)

"If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance." - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

"The future is not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we canthink>." - J B S Haldane, science writer, c.1950.

Although the future will never happen, it is already here: no matter how fast you run after it, the future will run just as fast. It is always around the next corner. If you pause to catch your breath, the future will pause too, waiting for you, just around the corner, out of sight. But how can it know you so well, when you don't know it?Answer: it lives inside your head. The future is part of you. That's why it's already here.

Is your head spinning yet? Good! One of the first things you need to do when thinking about the future is to recognize the unconscious assumptions you are making. An uneasy feeling in the brain may mean that your neurons are stretching your assumptions.


McTaggart's paradox (1927): an apparent proof that time does not exist. Too long to include here - see The new paradox of temporal transience, by David J Buller and Thomas R Foster.

On this site:
Predictions that went hopelessly wrong
Links to the future: organizations, publications, and websites
Preparing for the future
Glossary of 100-odd terms used in futures studies

At the end of the book Beyond the Library of the Futureby Bruce A. Shuman are 16 pages of quotations about the future (including some of the above).

Coming up (maybe)...

If you actually want help to address a project that requires a grasp of the future, then Steve Gould of Steve Gould Futures could be useful to you, Steve is based in Australia.