Why is the future 'far', not 'much'?

The Long-termist's Field Guide: 1,000 Ideas For The Next 1,000 Years

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… a human being started reading a newsletter about the distant future.”

What do you notice about that sentence?

When reaching for language to describe the long-term past or future – whether it’s in the Star Wars universe or just daily life – time is entwined with distance.

Time can’t be seen, so the brain turns to spatial metaphors when describing it. In English, time flows, and the future is ahead. The weekend is coming, the summer has passed, and you are working through the night. 

Across many languages, people tend to describe duration by unwittingly building a geographical picture in the mind. So the more you mentally time-travel out of the present, the further your brain projects in terms of distance too. The future is “far” or “distant”: a foreign place, a land across an ocean.

But of course, when your great-great-grandchildren are born, they won’t be far at all. Unless you jump ahead thousands of years, they will be on the same planet. Chances are, they’ll live in the same country or city. They might even call the same neighbourhood their home.

For better and worse, the entanglement of physical distance and time increases psychological distance. The researchers Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope describe this effect with an idea called “construal level theory”, which suggests that the future becomes ever-more abstract the further the mind travels from the present. That much is obvious – but it’s not just that the future gets fuzzier, construal level also affects the decisions and plans we make about it.

So, for example, the greater the psychological distance of the future, the more likely it is to be viewed through the lens of optimistic desires, rather than pragmatic realities.

To explain, Liberman and Trope use the example of a party (remember those?):

“If you ask people ‘What is a party?’, they might tell you that a party is ‘a fun social gathering with food and drinks.’ If you continue probing them to generate a more detailed answer, they might get to more incidental/peripheral features, such as ‘a party is also something that takes a lot of time to organize, entails doing dishes and spending money.’”

When individuals consider the possibility of organizing a party a year from now, they will generate a more abstract construal of the event, which will make it seem like a great idea. When they consider throwing a party one week from now, they will generate a more concrete and detailed construal of the event, which now includes the idea of doing dishes.”

A major downside of this optimism bias is when it is manifests in responses to problems like climate change. Construal level theory predicts that, with psychological distance, the concrete details and necessary sacrifices of a warming world fade away the further people mentally travel into tomorrow. With a rose tint, some might even be inclined to focus more on the prospect of balmier winters.

Knowing all this, it would be helpful to find words for the future that avoid evoking it as “somewhere else”. For this, English sometimes feels lacking. However, when trying to communicate long-termist ideas, I find talking about a “long” or “deep” future to be slightly better than a “far” or “distant” one. It does at least connect tomorrow to the present.

When the academic study of longtermism was first emerging a few years ago, its proponents also weighed up their vocabulary choices. Some of the early writing deployed the language of distance, such as Nick Beckstead’s influential thesis, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future. But longtermism seems to have stuck as a name because, as its advocates have argued, it better captures the idea of a continuum of time, between now and then, rather “what some possibly small group of people do a million years hence.” After all, we are connected to the lives of unborn people in a continuous ocean of time, and our acts today ripple ahead to affect all of them.

I’m curious about whether speakers of other tongues might have even better words, evoking different ways of thinking. Some other languages, such as Greek, talk about duration in terms of volume not length. In Greek, the word makris means “long” and is used to describe things like ropes, roads, arms and so on. But a Greek speaker would be more likely to describe a long meeting, night or relationship using the word megalos, which in spatial contexts means “physically large”. And in Spanish, I understand that the direct translation of “long time” – “largo tiempo” – apparently sounds awkward, so “mucho tiempo” (much time) would be preferred. (NB: I am not a native speaker myself.)

I’d like to believe that, over time, we can unlock a better vocabulary to talk – and therefore think – about the long-term. As a species, our mastery of language has already brought us so far in terms of our cognitive conception of time, but there’s still a way to go.

In the words of the psychologist Lera Boroditsky, who has studied how language shapes perceptions of time: “One of the great mysteries of the mind is how we are able to think about things we can never see or touch. How do we come to represent and reason about abstract domains like time, justice or ideas? The ability to cognitively transcend the physical is one of the very hallmarks of human intelligence.”

As you may know from previous newsletters, I am a fan of novel “long-terminology”. So I’d be fascinated to know: how do you describe the future in your own language?The Long-termist’s Field Guide now has readers from Finland to France, so do let me know by reply, or sharing on social media.

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Why is the future blue?

Inspired by the idea that psychological and physical distance are entwined, the economist Robin Hanson once made the speculative-but-intriguing suggestion that the future is often blue because of how we perceive light.

“Since blue light scatters more easily than red, far away things in our field of view tend to look more blue. So we expect future stuff to look blue. And since blue stuff looks cold, we expect future stuff to look cold,” Hanson wrote on his blog.

I don’t know if this is backed by evidence or not, but it would at least explain why corporate futures are so shiny.

This month’s long-terminology

Slow violence

As well as the far/deep/long adjectives of the future, recently I’ve been thinking about another piece of long-terminology: the concept of “slow violence”.

Originally coined by Rob Nixon of Princeton University, slow violence describes harm and damage that plays out over years or decades. The perpetrators may not be obvious, but the victims are. It occurs "gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all," he wrote.

According to Nixon, slow violence can be found embedded within the "slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes" of long-term pollution, climate change or nuclear fallout. But it can also describe many kinds of harm that affect individuals and communities at a pace too slow to assign blame.

In a piece for BBC Future, I looked in particular at the work of the geographer Thom Davies, who had spent time studying “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana. Through the lens of slow violence, he interviewed communities there who live side-by-side with some of the highest concentrations of industry in the US, and so have experienced creeping health and psychological impacts over many decades.

You can read the full BBC article here.

Thanks very much for reading. Please do pass on this newsletter if you liked it, or subscribe below if you’re reading it online.

And as I say, don’t hesitate to get in touch on email or social media if you have perspectives about the language of the future!

best wishes,

Richard

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