Conceptualizing the Future

I've been reading Braben's /Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization/, which has the core thesis that contemporary technology is largely based off of scraps leftover from the advancements made in the 60's-80's. The book is far deeper than just that, and goes on to make a point about providing scientific freedom via a series of methods, but I thought it was interesting how he conceptualized time within the book. The unspoken underpinning of the book is that scientific progress is human progress, that science is the endless frontier for people to explore, and that the "modern" world is premised on scientific progress.

While the first two points I'm in large agreement about, the conceptualization of "modern" is interesting. All sorts of people would hem and haw about "modernity", whether it is the Westphalian state, the neoliberal frame, or any other selection of things that the term has come to describe, but Braben's conceptualization is that there is endless spaces for scientific progress to be made, if only we could provide the resources the freedom and funding to explore all the possibilities. This presupposes the concept of multiple futures, with each distinct future marching to the beat of scientific progress.

1. Development and Modernization

What's interesting is how close this is to Truman's Point Four or JFK's "development decade". Truman's Point Four was largely a response to the physical realities of the expansion of the Marshall plan. As money ran out and demands for a "Marshall plan for the Middle East" and "Marshall plan for Asia" grew, Truman beat back those desires by outlining a system of technical assistance1. While funds were finite, American technical expertise was infinite, an endless frontier to be explored. It's not surprising that the research Braben identifies as critical are largely clustered around this period of the 40's to the 70's, the assured belief that a better future could be rendered through enough technical expertise and funding provided significant scientific freedom.

Modernization theory, the concept that nations all followed the same path from 'traditional' to 'modern' societies, ran the field around this time, especially with regards to the Middle East. Following WW2, "Turkey served as both the template Modernization theory was based on and the object on which it was enacted"2. Turkey's development had a decidedly positivist orientation: knowledge existed in the world, and that understanding that would allow us to harness the world. In Iraq, the Dujayla land project, a massive irrigation project now consigned to history, provided a class of Iraqi trainees that "became leading technocrats involved in later development projects, including the ongoing reform of rural and urban family life, while lessons learned on the settlement were taken by foreign specialists to new locations"3.

2. Theories of the Future

Tim Mitchell coined the term 'economentality'4, which largely describes the rise of post-1948/postwar development thought. His concept is that a variety of tools and more information gave rise to this idea of a singular "future". While pre-1940's economists largely thought forecasting was too unreliable, a new deluge of information, combined with the assured belief of new frontiers of science and technical expertise, gave the US government the belief that the future could be predicted, if not shaped. In other words, to understand the future, one must be able to accurately measure the present.

This distinctly positivist line, that with all this new, accurate information the future can either be predicted or controlled, naturally provides fertile breeding ground for conceptions of scientific freedom. Scientific freedom is, at its heart, the idea that scientists be allowed to explore all the data around us. When we start to believe that the future can be tamed with enough data, it becomes an imperative for us to analyze every piece of data.

By making the rise of scientific freedom coincident with modernization theory, we can also begin to see why scientific freedom begins to be curtailed around the same time modernization theory collapses in the late 70's. Braben identifies this as well, although he hesitates to make a guess as to why the funding structures for scientists change, lamely stating that the bureaucratic imperatives have shifted. Ultimately what Braben identifies is a change in value, postwar development used to quantifiably value scientific freedom, giving scientists more money.

What Braben and Mitchell both fail to identify is the change in value in contemporary times. From how I see it, there's largely three stages:

Stage Period Views on the Future
Quantifiable Present Pre-1948 No perception of the future, all value is tied to what is quantifiable in the present.
Quantifiable Future Post-1948 until late 1970's There is a singular future all nations and people go through, we can model it with enough information.
Quantifiable Possibilities Post-1970's There are many futures, the future is not deterministic, but the delta between different futures provides value.

The "Quantifiable Present" period is the most obvious, value (either monetarily or otherwise) is directly tied to what you hold in the present. FDR states5:

Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt. Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land… We are not able to invite the immigration from Europe to share our endless plenty. We are now providing a drab living for our own people… Clearly, all this calls for a re-appraisal of values. A mere builder of more industrial plants, a creator of more railroad systems, an organizer of more corporations, is as likely to be a danger as a help… Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand… of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. [Quoted in M, p. 5]

FDR foresees a dark future because he sees value as being tied to the land, the industrial plant, and things that are physical. As this runs out, FDR forecasts that all that is left to do is to become stewards of these resources.

The "Quantifiable Future" period is the one Mitchell and Braben identify. With the endless frontier of knowledge and technical expertise, Truman's Point Four kicks off a golden age for scientific freedom. The future is thought to be bright and tamable. Economic value here is no longer tied to the physical resource, rather it's tied to the knowledge and expertise. Because the future is known, the thinking goes, knowledge now can be directly translated to physical things in the future. It's as if you can always predict when you need a paper towel, so you never need to bother finding storage for unused paper towels in your home. This frees up additional space in your home you can use for other purposes.

"Quantifiable Possibilities" is what I believe we currently live in, and the rise of financial derivatives is emblematic of that. "Quantifiable Possibilities" states that the future is roughly predictable within a certain extent, but there are many futures. In other words, the probability mass function of all the futures can be constructed. This is where financial derivatives come in: the only reason a financial derivative has monetary value is because the bank's conception of what the future is differs from your conception of what the future is. A financial derivative gains its value from the delta between different potential futures.

James Bridle identifies "Quantifiable Possibilities" as the "New Dark Age", where he states that the abundance of information has not caught up with the increasing chaos of the world. While I would agree to some extent, especially with regards to climate change, I think what Bridle identifies is a shift in mentality as well: the future was only "bright" because we were so self assured of a singular future in the postwar period, while now there are far too many futures for us to enumerate. The curtailing of scientific freedom, now driven through large bureaucratic processes, is largely a response to this shift in mentality. When the future was assured, scientists could be allowed to work on whatever they had in mind, since they would all end up at the same spot eventually. When the endless possibilities of the future overwhelms us, scientists must be micromanaged and directed, lest they walk down undesirable paths.

Ultimately, the revival of scientific freedom is something I believe in, and I think time will bear that out. As Bridle says6:

We have been conditioned to think of the darkness as a place of danger, even of death. But the darkness can also be a place of freedom and possibility, a place of equality.



Almost completely by accident too.


Adalet, Begüm. Hotels and Highways: The Construction of Modernization Theory in Cold War Turkey. Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2018, page 5.


Pursley, Sara. Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq. Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2019, page 150.


Mitchell, Timothy. “Economentality: How the Future Entered Government.” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 4 (June 2014): 479–507., page 492


Bridle, James. New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future. London ; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2018.

Posted: 2020-11-20
Filed Under: research