Assuming Responsibility for Time

“To hell with the future! It's a man-eating idol. Institutions have a future … but people have no future. People have only hope.”

— Ivan Illich, unpublished interview (1986)

The essay this week is a selection from a recent talk I gave on how we think about the future. I’ve trimmed it quite a bit, but it’s still longish. The gist of it is this: an older optimism about progress now gives way the urge to predict the future and both share a common trait, the refusal to accept responsibility for time. Following Arendt (and Auden), I suggest one mode of accepting responsibility for time and resisting the lure of both “Progress” and prediction is promise.

Enjoy, and thank you for reading. I hope you all are well.

When I was a kid growing up in the early 1980’s, I enjoyed perusing back issues of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. I especially enjoyed flipping through issues devoted to imagining the future. You may remember them. They featured spectacular illustrations of massive space stations orbiting the earth and colonies on the moon and on Mars. They also foretold a future of automated labor, endless leisure, flawless medical care, and, yes, of course, more than a few flying cars.


Around the same time, Walt Disney World in Florida opened a second theme park then called Epcot Center. It, too, was themed largely around the wonders of science and technology. As you may already know, the name Epcot was an acronym standing for Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. It was the brain child of Walt Disney himself, who had intended for Epcot to be a working city, which would never cease to be a model for the future.

The actual park that opened back in 1982 was, of course, not a working city, but it was devoted to showcasing what the future had in store. I remember enjoying one ride in particular, which provided a moving journey through future scenes not unlike those featured in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. The ride was called Horizons, and it was closed down in the mid-90s as Epcot began to shift its focus toward a more conventional theme park experience.

The panorama below greeted riders as they exited Horizons.


Looking back now on the world imagined in the pages of magazines and on theme park rides, it’s hard not to be both bemused and a little embarrassed.

It is not only the case that so much of the imagined future has never materialized or that these visionaries failed to anticipate some of the major developments that did arrive. It is also the case that some of what they triumphantly depicted now seems to us as wholly undesirable.

We would be colonizing the moon and Mars as well as the ocean depths and the deserts. For some reason it never occurred to me as a child that no one would actually want to live on the ocean floor. I’m always struck, too, when I remember that Horizons featured one particular scene that is now altogether jarring: you observed a kind of automated, laser-powered deforestation machine casually decimating the rain forests. Needless to say this hardly strikes a utopian note today. [Correction: I kept searching for this latter scene and eventually realized that it was not a part of Horizons but rather from The New Futurama, a ride that was a part of the 1964 New York World’s Fair.]


Interestingly, Epcot itself was a version of an older tradition that dates from the mid-19th century, the tradition of World’s Fairs and Expositions. These fairs were held throughout the world and were, not unlike what Epcot turned out to be, a mixture of pavilions dedicated to science and technology, often with a view to the future, alongside pavilions celebrating individual nations and their cultures.

The history of these fairs is fascinating, and they tell us a lot about their cultural contexts (not all of it pleasant). The first fair of note was the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. It was organized by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and its most famous feature was the massive Crystal Palace, which housed exhibitions of the latest industrial technologies. Below is an artists rendering of the interior of the Crystal Palace.


It was at the 1900 Paris Exposition that massive dynamos spinning with preternatural quiet while generating electric power so impressed themselves upon Henry Adams, later inspiring his famous reflections on the virgin and the dynamo as motive forces of cultural achievement.

The most famous fairs in America were arguably those held in New York in 1939 and 1964 and in Chicago in 1933. The two fairs of 1930’s placed a unique focus on the future. The most popular exhibits at the 1939 New York Fair were the World of Tomorrow and Futurama, a moving ride through scenic landscapes and cityscapes of the future that was a forerunner of Epcot’s Horizons.


These fairs were remarkable artifacts of modern confidence in the power of humanity to conquer nature and shape the future through science and technology thus ushering in a utopian society. The 1933 Chicago fair took as one of its slogan the impossibly dystopian line, “Science finds, industry applies, man conforms.”

It’s notable that these fairs were held during the decade we best remember for the Great Depression. The ’39 New York fair in particular was held not only as the world was in the grip of the Depression but also as the specter of a cataclysmic war was already looming over the world.

Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, the fairs were extremely popular and were visited by millions of people in an age when air travel was not yet common.