Innovation in a Fragile Future – The Past as Future
An innovative idea is recognizable by the fact that it surprises. The greater the surprise, the more innovative the idea. But innovations do not consist solely of ideas, even if ideas are where they start from. Innovations are tied to the respective context. They consist in the recognition and implementation of new possibilities that reach beyond the tested or accustomed routine. They are defined by their success, which consists in opening up new spaces for activity, whether in connection with technological products, new markets, organizational adjustments, or other social arrangements. The surprise they can trigger no longer comes from the idea but from the effect they can have on life and work, on accustomed ways of seeing and thinking, on feelings and seemingly deadlocked arrangements and power structures. Surprising is also the speed with which an innovative idea can turn into an innovation and the speed with which an innovation can spread and change an existing situation. Innovations blur the boundaries between the present and the future. In many areas, the dramatic changes have pushed open the door to the present for new demands and possibilities that can be expected from the future. Like a breaking wave, the new communication and information technologies pour into everyday working life, where they destroy jobs or force the outsourcing of skills. The speed that has come with electronic data transfer has also increased the pulse rate of the present. To live for tomorrow means already living partly in tomorrow. One seeks to make oneself fit for the next techno-ecological niche that humankind has constructed with the aid of its science and technology.
Of course, there is also the counter movement. Politics and social movements do not mobilize so much by means of designs for a utopian future as by recourse to the historical legacy, fundamental values, and religious ideas. The closer the future seems to approach the present, the stronger the past’s power of attraction proves to be. Lieux des mémories (sites of memory) are set up, historical identities are invoked, biographies and remembrances boom. Historians report that today their discipline not only explores dimensions of reality that were inaccessible to earlier historians but also can more comprehensively perceive and judge the long-term effects of, for example, the nineteenth century than it could in the past. The gaze backward into the past is extending, not least also because of the scientiflc‑technological instruments available today. Ice core samples in the Antarctic or Greenland permit conclusions about the long-term shift in the climate, and a new generation of satellites in space permits a glimpse all the way back to the beginnings of the universe.
Nonetheless, the increased sensitivity to the changes in historiography and the reconstructions of human life in the past as it may have developed through periods of climate change in prehistoric times still do not permit us to deduce any convincing perspectives on the future. The ideas of the future today have become more fluid, elusive, and volatile. Where the predictions of the natural sciences find support in more or less secured data and models, in many areas we must still reckon with unpredictable human behavior. Whereas past images of the future had a common if also utopian site, today there are hardly any over-arching utopian models. The future as a collectively yearned-for space, occupied by wishes and expectations, must fail due to the plethora of what seems scientifically-technologically feasible— never mind what parts of the latter are desirable. Have we lost our future because it already claims us too much in the present?
History shows that there are many different ways of imagining the future. Long before the project of European modern-ism, there was the opposite movement in history, an incursion of the past into a datable present out of which ultimately grew an undreamt-of, productive future. It happened in a place and by means of a discovery, but neither the one nor the other can explain the resulting effect. In the middle of the fourteenth century, Petrarch set off on a stroll in medieval Rome. In a letter to Giovanni Colonna, a member of the Dominican order, he describes his impressions, depicting the ancient monuments and his own feelings on seeing them. His elucidations are accompanied by literary passages from the texts of ancient authors. Both the description of the monuments and the quotations from the old works are suffused with his thoughts about the heathen and Christian world and its wisdom. For Petrarch, the ruins that the inhabitants of Rome ignore or had long since forgotten suddenly took on a significant new shape. They provided the physical and literary material serving to found ancient Rome anew or, as we would put it today, to reinvent it.
Thus began the project of the Renaissance, which spread in the following two centuries and unfolded its unrivaled creativity. It was based in a return to a past seen with new eyes and perceived anew with other senses. The ruins of the ancient architectural monuments in Rome ceased being ruins. Their description provided the basis for attributing new meaning to them, for bringing them alive and into the present. The old texts provided the knowledge needed to resurrect the ancient city with its monuments and statues. First, new texts were written as commentaries on the old, but soon one commentary was written about the last. The knowledge of ancient knowledge spread. It grew with each new elucidation written about it. To literature was added knowledge about practical arts and the mathematics that contributed to ancient architecture, knowledge of mechanics as well as of poetry and cosmology. The distant past came closer to the present and began to coalesce with it. Humanism received an institutional foundation. It organized itself as an artistic and intellectual movement that allied itself with the ruling strata and brought motion into the rigid social structures. Its program was oriented toward the paradoxical appearance of “a passionate hope directed toward the past” and toward the “vision of a new world built upon ancient texts.” The Renaissance, wrote historian François Hartog, had an unprecedented ideal (and an unprecedented site) for its audac-ity—the entire knowledge of the ancient, pre-Christian world. Its courage consisted in appropriating this past and in daring to make a new beginning in the present.
Today, the entire knowledge of humankind and its impressive technological capacities is oriented toward a future that does not so much promise a new beginning as a further intensification and dynamic continuation of what has already been achieved. Science and technology cross the threshold between the present and the future unhindered, for what appears possible in the laboratory today can already be in the market tomorrow or the day after. The scientific-technological gaze thereby literally goes way back and way ahead. The most recent generation of very large telescopes and of space missions like Galilei and Cassini permit scientific curiosity to reach distant galaxies and regions of the universe where its gaze is directed into the past. Molecular-biological technologies permit research on and comparisons among the evolutionary pasts of organisms; robot probes sent to Mars explore the characteristics of its surface to draw conclusions about its origin and development and to compare them with those of the earth. The exploration of outer space, perhaps humankind’s future home, leads via the past back into the future. Instead of investigating ancient architectural monuments in connection with the literary testimonies of a Titus Livius, today intern or transdisciplinary connections are created between physics, biology, computer science, mathematics, and other areas of knowledge that aim to launch new fields of study with the aid of technological instruments and methods. Networks and social organizations are invented and new and old units are founded so that everything that arises locally can be distributed in a way that, as in the Renaissance, allows knowledge to be carried out into the world, where it enters into new combinations.
The place of renovatio—the refounding of an old, admired order, its stock of knowledge, and the newly discovered residues of its former glory—is today taken by the innovation that these modern societies that are willing and able to change have devoted themselves to. The new is not sought for the sake of the new, however historically unique modern natural science’s preference for the new may have been. Rather, the new is continually to create innovations, which in turn expand the space for activity and possibilities. Audacity for an unforeseeable and fragile future is nonetheless needed. The expansion of the possibilities of and space for activity increases the complexity of events and thus the uncertainty of the outcome. The idea of susceptibility to planning, an idea that accompanied modernity from the beginning, has long since proven to be an illusory dream of controllability. But we still have to learn how to live the life of uncertainty that is inseparably tied to innovatio.
Research conducted by the sciences of complexity on chaos, self-organization, and networks has brought these concepts into everyday language and permitted them to serve the management of uncertainty. But everything that is thought and said about the future and all supposed knowledge about it ultimately depends on past experiences and already developed expectations. At the beginning of modern times, when the temporal horizon toward an open future began to expand for the first time, the tension between experience and expectation was especially powerful. The palpable discrepancy lay in the alienness of the expectations of the improvement of living conditions, of new knowledge, and of the technological possibilities that would contribute to their realization. Francis Bacon formulated these promises programmatically and the most trenchantly for the still young natural sciences. The certainty of salvation that came from the religious tradition and that linked experience and expectation with each other was first loosened and then exploded. Later came the “discovery of the malleability of society.” Today other parameters mark the field of tension between experience and expectation. Both have become extremely volatile because they hardly have time to congeal. The image of the future is no longer a static one; it changes dynamically in proportion to our attempts to imagine and conceive the future.