History of the Future

At the risk of adding even further to the chaotic eclecticism that’s been the first week of this blog, here’s another direction or angle or perspective that I pursue. Since graduate school, I’ve been fascinated with the history of the future. Not so much as historians having some special felicity with predicting the future (nope), but how the future is a wildly understudied facet of the human past. We’re constantly thinking about the future (even historians), from checking the weather, to making grocery lists for the week, to looking forward to vacations or travel or time off, etc. It would be very interesting to develop a larger historical project on these kinds of mundane features of the future, but my focus has tended toward the history of technology and its relationship to the environment.

Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin, and Paul Warde have been doing some exciting work on environmental prediction, and I know of a few historians who have taken an interest in futurism. My own project—very much in the pipeline phase at the moment—is currently organized around “Thinkers,” “Planners,” and “Makers.” Loosely, the first involves an intellectual history of the future (and touches on futurism, sci fi, etc.); the second considers planning, design, and prediction; and the final section is still fairly poorly conceived, but I want a place to investigate the Jay Wright Forresters and Buckminster Fullers of the world. Or at least that’s the current plan.

This has also been a teaching interest of mine. I’ve taught “The History of the Future” twice at McMaster over the past few years, and after removing the course from our calendar to make way for teaching the history of sustainability, I reintroduced it this past year, and hope to teach it again soon. Here’s a copy of the syllabus from the last time I taught it: 3UU3_Syllabus_2009. I had a really good group of students who bought in and made this a really fun class. I had roughly 100 students in the room, but the culture of the class made it feel more like a seminar with lots of good questions during and after each session. The next time I teach it, I will likely revise the courseware materials and the course direction, in order to try to organize the course around the future writing project. I’ll write more about the course concepts in the future; this was an interesting and effective way to talk about technological systems.

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