In my line of work, it’s understandable to occasionally be confused about tenses. Lately, when that happens, I think about Isaac Azimov. More accurately, I think of a weird French animated film from 1988, Light Years aka Gandahar , the English translation of which Azimov happened to write. The tag line in English was, ” a thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved.” The plot involves time travel, duh. But what made the biggest impression on me as a child was the way Azimov translated the speech of the Deformed, mutant Gandaharians who aid the protagonist in the various eons of his quest. For example:
There seemed to be no present tense in their language. A thing “was-will-be.” The concept of the present is just an anomaly in the continuity of what was in the past, into what will be in the future. This tickled my nerdy little mind as a child, in between bouts of utter distraction by the cracked out synthesizer laden soundtrack. Whenever I’m feeling despondent about some quality the present lacks, I think about history and when that quality was, and the future and when that quality may reemerge.
Learning how to practice mindfulness has been a struggle for me, as my teachers seem to discount the future as a distraction from the present. The future is…well, really pretty important to me. This has caused some bouts of rebellion, against myself in my attempts to re-wire my brain into something generally more resilient.
Vivian and I used to debate whether there was such a thing as “mindful futures thinking.” We generally concluded “no.” But I think the long view of the Deformed, their fusion of acceptance and patience, is that elusive idea of mindful futures Viv and I were searching for. (Although I didn’t remember it clearly enough at the time to make my case. I’m reading Ready Player One now, so my head’s all twisted around the 80s sci-fi of my childhood. The rest of the 80s pop culture references sill allude me.)
When I started writing fiction as a child, I almost always wrote in the past tense. It was just easier that way.
When I started writing as an anthropologist, the past tense was the way to go for almost everything, except for brief vignettes or seriously highfalutin theory.
My current challenge is learning to write well in the present tense. The perpetual, perfect, perplexing, maddening present that infuses every sentence I write with a question lingering in my mind about WHEN IT TAKES PLACE. Take this meta paragraph, which describes how I have-will give scenario presentations:
I walk up on stage. I’m thinking about my first line. It’s in 2012, in the present. I’m thinking of my fifth line. It’s in 2022, in the future, and I have to bring the whole audience with me. In four sentences, we have to know we are here and now, and then agree to believe we’re some other time, some other place. I’ve done this before, many times. Sometimes it worked, others, not so much. When we talk about the future, all sorts of traps get sprung in people’s heads. We try to get around them. I’m trying to get around them. I’m trying to bring people into the future, while fooling their brains into listening to it for long enough to suspend their disbelief that the future won’t look like that and that won’t happen and just…imagine. The future is now. The future is the present.
If all the tenses in that paragraph confused you, welcome to my life. Unless you write futures, you have no idea. If we’re now in 2022, how do you talk about the now-past-then-future, say, things that happened in 2018? If you lapse into past tense here, you’re likely to give your audience temporal whiplash, and generally lose the non-native speakers completely. The solution here is to stay in the present tense, carefully dancing around pseudo historical land mines.
But despite all that challenge to our tense constructions, scenarios let us wrap our heads around futures. Even if they’re wrong, less likely to be accurate, less plausible, than other forms of foresight, they’re more tangible, and I think in many cases, more useful, in my opinion. But is it the best solution to the tense problem when writing and speaking serious futures?
When I first started interning at IFTF, I discovered the challenges of writing in the future tense. Tenses. At that time, there were hardly any scenarios in the recent IFTF cannon. A vignette here and there, a lone report, but mostly there were forecasts. Descriptions of trends. Reports from the perspective of the present about future possibility. There’s the strong forecast tense, ” this will happen.” There’s the weaker iterations, “will likely/may/might happen.” I got the hang of these pretty quickly. But there’s some really interesting evidence emerging that there may be some drawbacks to framing futures in this way, with the strong distinction between present and future. My colleague Gabriel Harp gave this a much more thorough and nuanced treatment than I will here, under the provocative heading, “Does talking about the future make it less likely to happen?” Now this research is based in cross-cultural linguistics, which is all kinds of fascinating, and makes my muddled tense rant above seem shockingly ethnocentric. Dr. Sohail Inayatulla has some pretty awesome lectures on his youtube channel about cross cultural concepts of the future and how they shape thinking, which is similarly all kinds of fascinating.
In short, “what is the best tense” is totally the wrong question. Even “how can we keep this not confusing” isn’t nearly ambitious enough. The real question is, how do you know, based on your audience, what the most provocative, comprehensible and persuasive tense will be? How do you develop cultural agility for futures thinking?