The importance of words for seeing the future, or, you need to think “stick” before being able to use a stick

Photo credit: Bianca Dijck, Flickr  

 

 

Photo credit: Bianca Dijck, Flickr

Jake Dunagan, a Director at the Institute for the Future writes about how language characterizes our ability to see the world around us and, critically, envision outcomes in the future.

In “Look Forward, and Carry a Big Stick“, he observes that Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky compared the differing cognitive mechanisms that apes and humans use to perceive and interact with the world around them. “Both apes and humans can use a stick as a tool, but, Vygotsky argues, an ape must actually see the stick before he can think “stick.” A sufficiently developed and linguistically enabled human, however, must think “stick” in order to actually see the stick.”

In a recent post, “Resilient, durable or agile?  A metaphor for future aid organisations“, Chris Watkins suggested that thinking about the meaning of the words we use to define our future was “just semantics” and somehow therefore less relevant to humanitarian aid.  Vygostky’s findings suggest that not only are “semantics” important for understanding the world around us, but that in fact they are essential, especially when thinking about the future.

This has radical implications for how we envision, and strategize, about the future.  Dunagan writes,

In terms of the way humans envision the future, humans are much closer to the ape in our thinking – our possibilities tend to be more confined to what we can already see (or have seen) than what we can freely imagine. To deal with the enormous global challenges we face and to create a more responsible and just society, we must learn to become more human in our relationship to the future.

What does this mean?  According to recent findings, Dunagan points out, our brains see the future in terms of the past and present. “Therefore,” he writes, “we must construct our media, our objects, and our built environment as an aide de futuribles to our brain’s capacity to imagine possible futures.”

If the future is a stick we have to see in order to think, then those concerned with creating better futures should start making their favorite sticks and start whacking others in the shins with them!”  

This is exactly what we were trying to do with our post on resiliency versus agility, a theme we will continue to explore in future posts.

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