First Posted October 28, 2012.
"No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. ... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
A hundred years from now, what will people have said the frontier that we crossed and settled was? As I reflect upon this, I don't think we really know.
The Frontier of the 20th Century
When Turner presented his frontier thesis, what he saw was the emergence of science and expansion of education as the frontier boundaries of the 20th century. What he could not have known was that the 20th century would also become a time world war and violence between nations, and by nations towards their citizens.
While our science advanced, our humanity retreated into barbarism.
Of course, human beings have always been blood-thirsty. But the 20th century marks a level of the sophistication in the practice of genocide, slavery, eugenics and war that is unprecedented.
This development was not so much a failure of science, for science as a culture was never in control of its own advancement. But rather a result of the social, political and economic philosophies of the modern age that emerged during the 18th. and 19th. centuries that gave a rational basis to the violence on such an enormous scale.
The humanistic philosophies of the Renaissance, which drew upon the ancient philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, and the ancient religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, gave way to the ideologies that diminished human beings into utilitarian means for industrial and cultural advancement.
As modern people, we celebrate individualism and freedom as the ultimate purpose of human society, and yet turn a deaf ear to the sufferings of people singled out for extinction by their governments. We are following a logical course of the ideologies that have dominated the last two hundred years of human history. What is the future of a planet where death on such a massive scale is hardly mentioned by presidential candidates. Is our only option to throw up our hands in defeat and let violence suck the life out of civilized societies?
I have wondered over the past decade or so why it is that so much of visual culture about the future has become so apocalyptic, and less hopeful. Compare E.T. the extraterrestrial (1982) , Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series from a generation ago to films and games like The Road (2009) , The Book of Eli (2010), the Resident Evil series and, most recently books, films and television series about zombies, vampires and alien invasion.
Does the shift from an optimism about the future, as expressed in President Kennedy's challenge, to a darker, apocalyptic one reveal our own deep insecurity about the future capabilities of technology?
Walker Percy's question from a generation ago still resonates deeply as a question that remains to be answered.
Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century? Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making the world over for his own use?
Maybe, to paraphrase a biblical reference, through the advancement of technology, we have gained the world and lost our humanity.
The question of our time is, then, "For what purpose, and to what end does our technological advancement lead us?"
One Step Removed
I have thought a lot about frontiers over past decade, as my interest in the Lewis & Clark Expedition grew. I found in their story both the inspiration for venturing toward the frontier, and the cautionary lessons that can guide us.
I've concluded that we are one step removed from understanding what the frontier of the future is.
I know that there are all sorts of predictions about the future. I'm not talking about predicting the future. Predictions are largely taking current knowledge and extending its development into the future.
Instead, I'm talking about a frontier of the future of what is unknown and undiscovered.
This is a different mindset that requires a humble openness to the future, and a certain skepticism about what we already know and have achieved. In effect, we do what the best scientists and explorers have always done, look forward without prejudicial assumptions that bind discoveries into a preconceived understanding of the future.
The future is the horizon upon which we set our bearings, our aspirations and the validation of our values.
The difference between being an explorer rather than a futurist is that the futurist stands in the present looks towards the future, and the explorer, instead, leaves the present behind to embrace an unknown future.
In the past, explorer's were individuals of vision who largely made their discoveries out of the public's eye. Today, we need more than individuals who are willing to venture into the unknown, we need a society that will. As the old saying goes, "the thinking that got us here is not the thinking that will get us out of here."
This first step in pioneering the future is to reorient our lives and world so that we see ourselves living on the frontier. For this is what I see, the end of what we've known for 500 years, and the beginning of a new epoch of discovery. This reorientation is the frontier that is within each of us that must first be crossed before the larger horizon of the future can be identified.
The Next Frontier is Within
Explorers do not decide to go, and then walk out the door. They prepare.
The preparation that we need now is the frontier that is within each of us. The focus of preparation is simple. The execution is difficult.
We can begin with this question.
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
This starting point leads us to the frontier within. The frontiers that we then must cross is intellectual, social and spiritual.
The intellectual frontier is to think for yourself, thinking with open observation, without prejudice, yet with skepticism toward your own conclusions.The social frontier is to make connections with people, establishing relationship of respect, trust, and mutual support and collaboration, so that shared discovery creates new communities of understanding for the future.
The spiritual frontier is recognizing there is a reality beyond the material and beyond that which I can control, which is intelligible to those who embrace it with openness and a willingness to learn and adapt to its frame of understanding.
Once the frontier within has been embraced, then the next frontier will show itself.