Defining things is often a task best left to linguists or philosophers, but there a large number of things about which we have these vague, yet certain, concepts living in our minds. The idea of “the future” is one of those things, but if only because there is both (A) a strict definition of “the future” that exists, while simultaneously (B) another vague meaning implied by the same term that is available for common usage. By this I mean, simply, that if I use the term “the future” I can give you a precise definition of this point in time anywhere within a linear chronology following this precise moment: you will finish reading this paragraph sometime in the future, presumably in the near future (a qualified definition, of course. And as in, you will finish reading this paragraph at some linear time after right now. Specifically: right now.
But then — oops — that future we were just reading about just became the past. This is because it is also true to remind you that you very probably just finished reading that paragraph — the previous paragraph — at some point in the very recent past, and that point of which we were just discussing as the future (in that same paragraph) is now, technically speaking, your past and no longer your future.
So, the strict definition of “the future” is useful, but not very useful on a timescale that is not a transitional (as in, when does ‘now’ become ‘then’) type of discussion.
Thus, the other meaning — the vague meaning — implied by the same term I was referencing in that earlier paragraph is the alternative to this: it is less strict, as in we tend to use it to refer to some far off point in time, a time both immeasurable and indistinct. By this I mean, more complexly, that if I use the term “the future” I can write something like: “in the future I’ll be an old man.” But then, while there is still a somewhat definite timeline associated with that sense of “the future,” I’m neither talking about (a) a time in the next few minutes (or even the next few years) nor (b) a time that I myself have a solid conceptual grasp about. I could be considered an old man when I’m fifty (by my daughter, for example) or I may not consider myself an old man until I reach eighty… if I’m fortunate enough to make it there… then… whatever. It’s all the future, far off and indistinct from where I look out into the mists of my linear temporal path, right?
So, when exactly is this “the future” that we all talk about?
This post was written (from two perspectives) in the past: the first perspective is obvious because, simply, it would have been impossible for it to have been written in the future else you could not currently be reading it.
The second perspective is a little more complex, however, in that “the past” of which I now refer is not the familiar recent past. Why? Because this post was written as part of an experiment in the Long Now… a longer-timescale blog, to be exact. Designed to make me (and hopefully you, too) think about things vaster than these short blips of time — those second definition ideas — by tricking readers (myself included) into partaking in the experiment simply by reading these words. It was written at a point (which based on the rules of that experiment I can’t tell you exactly when) that is specifically NOT recently, and (thanks to the wonders of technology and scheduled publication) only appeared as a public post on this blog in a recent time frame (assuming you are dutifully keeping up to date… though that is irrelevant, too.) In other words, it’s both old and new, simultaneously. It is written for now, but a “now” in my future from a “now” in your past. When I wrote it, I had to flip my brain all around to do so: this is all very weird to consider as a result because as I write these words I’m thinking about a version of “the future” that fits my second definition rather than my first as I usually do when I write, while simultaneously writing about a similar inverse version of the past — a not-so-recent past as you read this — neither of which can be known by you, the reader.
Does that make sense? Read it again. Make sure you get your mind around it… I’ll wait.
So, when exactly is “the future,” then? I don’t have an answer, really. It just makes you think…