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Todd Essig, Ph.D.

Todd Essig Ph.D.

Future Nostalgia and Defensively Using the Instant Moment

Longing for a tomorrow that housed human imagination.

I'm nostalgic for tomorrow. Furthermore, you might consider becoming so too.

I know future nostalgia sounds a little strange; how can one sentimentally, perhaps wistfully, yearn to re-experience something that has not yet been. It defies logic. One can't be homesick for a home in which one has never lived. But you need to know something: I've been trying not to defy logic ever since I found myself identifying as much with Mr. Spock as Captain Kirk. And the fact of the matter is future nostalgia does not defy logic because many have psychologically lived in the future, lived in an endless series of tomorrows connected by desire to the present moment.

The future was home to 20th-century imaginings. Questions like "who are you going to be when you grow up?" and then "what's your major?" were developmentally important. Later, many found goal-setting opportunities identified by the Positive Psychologists—like Martin Seligman—as central to well-being. Commitments to career, marriage, mortgage, and having children are commitments that fully take place only when one is living in a psychologically vitalized future.

But living in the future is not so easy anymore. The new home for 21st century imaginings is increasingly the present. The instantaneous now is crowding out the future. We're losing tomorrow. We have so many connections open all the time—did you hear the NPR piece about Blackberries at the beach?—that the "now" comfortably makes room for all our imaginings. The future as the location in which to place our imaginings is starting to dim like a battery powered bulb. And rather than mourn the future, we instead immerse ourselves in, even celebrate, the instantaneous now of constant digital connection.

Some triumphantly say there's no need to be nostalgic for tomorrow because our digital culture IS the future, like Nick Bilton in I live in the future & here's how it works. But they are wrong. Today is no where near close to what tomorrow will be. In fact, tomorrow is so discontinuously different from today that it already escapes the vitalizing force of our imagination. And when I am not defensively immersed in the wonders of now, in all the pleasures, distractions, soporifics and challenges of the instant moment, I really miss the future.

For example, a popular concept among "futurists" (a whole category of experts unnecessary when the future is routinely imaginable) is a coming "singularity" beyond which we cannot see what life will be like after we make machines more intelligent than we are.Those smarter-than-us machines will then go on to make even smarter than smarter-than-us machines. There's even an institute, the Singularity Institute, devoted to the study of this as yet still hypothetical historical inflection point.

Others, like the AI/robotics researcher David Levy in his book Love and Sex with Robots, argue that within a few generations humans will make machines with the requisite emotional intelligence and mechanical fluency to simulate another human with enough sophisticated fidelity so as to induce actual humans to fall in love and have fully satisfying sexual/romantic relationships with them. Can you imagine what living in such a world would feel like? I can't. The future that used to be home to my imaginings has become like driving in a densely encroaching fog

But it's not just digital culture making it impossible to see what's ahead; the psychologically-futureless culture of simulation and enhancement is emerging from a variety of sources. Genetics, nanotechnology, and cosmetic neurology are all developing at a pace so rapid that the there is no way to imagine a future in which their techno-potential is fully realized. If one assumes the future to emerge will be like today, one undervalues the power of the technologies being developed. And if one tries to imagine the discontinuous future that will emerge, it becomes impossible to find oneself in the fog of possibilities.

Now, add to all this the inconvenient truth of human-made global climate change. The consequence of climate change means we will either live in a radically altered world because we continue to develop and use energy as we have or we will radically alter the world so that we do not have to continue self-destructively using energy as we have been doing. Either way you have a future that no longer functions as stage for answers to childhood questions like "who are you going to be when you grow up?". It will just be too different.

So, is it any wonder I'm nostalgic for the future? I actually hope such nostalgia will help keep the future psychologically alive even while we are losing it to the coming discontinuities. And that's why I'm also encouraging you to be nostalgic for the future. We're in it together.

But watch out; it's a nostalgia tinged with painful mourning. Wandering so far from home that one begins to fear getting too lost to ever be found can become quite uncomfortable. That's why it's so easy to hide in the temptations of the instant now. Since tomorrow as home for human imaginings really is gone and never to return, perhaps the best we can do is fight the illusory comforts of the instant moment so we can, at least sometimes, remember the future with nostalgic longing.

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About the Author

Todd Essig, Ph.D.

Todd Essig, Ph.D., is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute with a clinical practice treating individuals and couples.