Tomorrow is already history

We cannot imagine the future when we don't understand our past

In January our minds are turned to the future. What will the year bring? Many of us make resolutions that we will never keep. Some of us make life-changing plans. But where is the future?

Conventional wisdom says the future is in front of us: the time yet to come. According to the huge Whitehall Foresight programme, designed to make "the future work for you", it will be a time when robots will have the vote, we will go for holidays on the moon, and the world will have splintered into currency blocs. The latest output from this 12-year government project, a product of more than 200 research papers, was published last month. The Horizon Scans projects examine everything from science and technology to politics, the economy and society. In front of us, we are told in reassuring terms, we will find endless broadband, computer-brain interface and immortality. This is the future as seen by English speakers.

But the humble speakers of Aymará, a native language of the High Andes, beg to differ. The future, they say, lies not in front of us but behind us. It is the past that is actually in front of us. The Aymarás' word for future is qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time; the word for the past is nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. Their hand gestures reflect their language. They gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future. This is not some cultural curiosity. Research suggests that Aymará speakers provide us with a fundamentally different way of looking at the future. For them, the question of what is known and not known is paramount. What is known is what you see in front of you. The past is known, so it lies in front. The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you cannot see it.

This makes a great deal of sense to me as someone who has been studying the future for the past three decades. Most of us work obsessively to change our future - to improve our finances, secure better opportunities for our children, advance our communities. But all the knowledge we use to do that is about the past.

This is also true of the academic study of the future, known as "futures studies" or, in pre tentious circles, "foresight". The Horizon Scans projects, for example, examine historic and current trends - that is to say, what we know - and extrapolate from them to the future. Although we believe the future is in front of us, the knowledge we use to understand it forces us to turn around and we end up backing into the future.

Thus, a great deal of what we are told to expect in the coming years is nothing more than the projection of the past on to the future. The results of Whitehall's Foresight programme are a good example. All we learn is that, contingency notwithstanding, we will enjoy more of the same, albeit enhanced, wonders of technology. The image of the future we are offered is nothing more than the apotheosis of our technological knowledge and desires.

But the Aymará speakers are forcing us to rethink the future, says my futurist friend Dennis Morgan. How can you understand the future, asks Morgan, who teaches at Korea University, when all your images derive from the single, historic source of modernity?

Modernity has trapped us in a spiral with no direction except one-dimensional technological progress for its own sake. It is impossible to have any inkling of the future when we don't understand our past and have no idea who we are or what it means to be human. Most of us, Morgan suggests, do not even know what it means to live a life worth living. We are ready to abandon so much in the name of progress because we do not understand the value of what we have.

The best way to explore the future - the genuinely unknown - is to discover exactly where you are looking. As John Lennon, the patron saint of pop music, sang: "How can I go forward when I don't know which way I'm facing?"

Ziauddin Sardar is editor of Futures, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.