Believing in the Future

There’s something really sexy about science.

And by that I don’t mean the individual sciences, biology and physics and the like (although, I won’t deny that for some individuals, no doubt, there is a not-exclusively intellectual attraction). And in this category, too, I would also include technology – “applied science” – as well as “pure science,” the people in white coats pottering around in laboratories and so on. You can make some useful distinctions between the two (and probably some not-so-useful ones) but in my mind, they share a purpose and a population: those driven to succeed in science and technology are fundamentally concerned with solving problems, with implicit beliefs that 1) solutions can (if not necessarily will) be found; and 2) solving these problems will make life better.

A fundamental challenge to this admittedly idealistic view of human progress (aside from questioning whether progress indeed occurs) is the profit motive: that is, do people invent or study or tinker or innovate because they want to? Because they are deeply driven to seek knowledge for its own sake, or create something that mimics and/or manipulates the forces of nature? Or because they simply want a reward in return – most often, money or reputation?

Individual motivations aside, I have to believe that sometimes, at least, it’s not always self-driven, or at least not for external rewards. Some people have indeed worked for profit and received it; others have tried and never received it, their work either ignored or stolen or simply not valuable; but surely still others have received unsought fame? Or strove to figure out a puzzle for its own sake, perhaps leaving the rest of the world still ignorant of their findings?

It is these people, I think, whom we should really appreciate not simply for their intelligence or creativity or accomplishments, but for their belief in the future, and their willingness to take steps, however tentative, toward it. I hesitate to use the word “optimism,” which to me connotes more cheerfulness than substance. It’s not simply that science has all the answers, but that science (its methods of close observation, testing, and reassessing current understanding) and technology (its use of scientific principles and experimentation, explicitly or implicitly, to engage with problems and possibilities in the world) see great potential. Both have been misused and misled in the past; both should recognize that past (and present) solutions may lead to further problems in the future; but underlying it all is the irrepressible drive to keep trying, perhaps abandoning a theory or a doctrine but not losing faith to take the next step forward.

Can I count myself among this faithful, in spirit if not in accomplishment? I’m still not sure. But at the very least, I can’t help but think that we need those who are willing to believe in the future. Inevitably it comes.

* * *
On the Concept of History IX: The Angel of History

Walter Benjamin

There is a picture by Paul Klee called Angelus Novus. In it, an angel is depicted who appears as if trying to distance himself from something that he stares at. His eyes and mouth gape wide, his wings are stressed to their limit.

The Angel of History must look this way; he has turned to face the past. Where we see a constant chain of events, he sees only a single catastrophe incessantly piling ruin upon ruin and hurling them at his feet.

He would probably like to stop, waken the dead, and correct the devastation – but a storm is blowing hard from Paradise, and it is so strong he can no longer fold his wings.

While the debris piles toward the heavens before his eyes, the storm drives him incessantly into the Future that he has turned his back upon.

What we call Progress is this storm.

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