Elon University

Why study the future?

Why study the future? Because our existence depends upon the anticipation of what is to come and our preparation and policymaking responses.

Writer H.G. Wells called for a “science of prediction” in 1902 in his “The Discovery of the Future.” Since then, the study of the future has gradually become more formalized. Most futurists, scientists, and long-term thinkers today say the acceleration of technological change over the past decade has greatly increased the importance of strategic vision.

Technology innovations will continue to impact us in unstoppable waves of developmental destination. We will precognize and plan as well as we can for potential new realities or we will be caught unaware and unprepared. If the developmental record of 20th century computing continues for only another 30 years, we will rapidly and permanently move to a different world. Are we prepared to react in ways that will make that world a good one?

This site is all about the contemplation of the future; on this page, we share a collection of statements about the future.

Quotes about the future

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” – Seneca, Roman philosopher, 3 BC-65 AD

“Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy, US politician, 1963

“Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future but to shape it… to channel our destiny in humane directions and to try to ease the trauma of transition.” – Alvin Toffler, futurist

“Nothing we can do can change the past but everything we do changes the future.” – Ashleigh Brilliant, US artist

“The empires of the future will be the empires of the mind.” – Winston Churchill, UK leader, writer

“The future is ours to shape. We are in a race that we need to win. It’s a race between the growing power of the technology and the growing wisdom we need to manage it.” – Max Tegmark, MIT physicist, 2015

“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future; the learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer, US writer

“Somewhere, there is something incredible waiting to be known.” – Carl Sagan, physicist

“The future for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.” – Malcolm X, 1964

“It is the business of the future to be dangerous… the major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” – Alfred North Whitehead, UK philosopher and mathematician, 1925

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara, leader at the Institute for the Future, a think tank

“We are to guard against ourselves; not against ourselves as we are, but as we truly may be; for who can imagine what we may become under circumstances not now imaginable.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1822

“Compulsive perfectionism polishes the past when bold new skills are needed to unlock the future.” – Dag Hammarskjold, Swedish statesman 

“Discovering which technologies hold the greatest promise and preferentially advancing those in a beneficial manner, while regulating and delaying destabilizing ones, is the essence of our individual and social choice.” – Part of the mission statement of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, led by John Smart, 2005

“Humankind cannot solve its problems from the same place of consciousness in which we created them. A new place of consciouness is required.” – Albert Einstein

“The emergence in the early 21st century of a new form of intelligence on Earth that can compete with, and ultimately significantly exceed, human intelligence will be a development of greater import than any of the events that have shaped human history. It will be no less important than the creation of the intelligence that created it, and will have profound implications for all aspects of human endeavor, including the nature of work, human learning, government, warfare, the arts, and our concept of ourselves. – Ray Kurzweil, scientist and futurist, “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” 1998

“In the end, what will shape the future is a creative potential that inheres in the new technologies.” – Ithiel de Sola Pool, “The Human Use of Human Ideas,” 1983

“I am interested in… teleological evolution, evolution with a purpose. The idea of evolution by design, designing the future, anticipating the future. I think of the need for more wisdom in the world to deal with the knowledge we have. At one time we had wisdom but little knowledge. Now we have a great deal of knowledge, but do we have wisdom to deal with that knowledge?” – Jonas Salk, 1991

“The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.” – William Gibson, author and futurist, a statement he repeated throughout the 1990s

“What makes the future different from the past is the choice that the participants are obliged (and privileged) to exercise on the basis of their imperfect understanding.” – George Soros, founder of the Open Society group

“Without expectations, there’s no future, only an endless present.” – François Jacob, Nobel Prize winner

“Law XLC: One should expect that the expected can be prevented, but the unexpected should have been expected.” – Norman R. Augustine, “Augustine’s Laws”

All plans imply an attempt to impose the values of the past…on the future.” – Alvin Toffler, 1969

“Looking at the future disturbs the present.” – Gaston Berger, French futurist, 1964

“The trouble with our times is that the future isn’t what it used to be.” – Attributed to French poet Paul Valéry in the mid-1940s and to many others since then

“What we call our future is the shadow that our past projects in front of us.” – Marcel Proust, “A l’ombe des jeunes filles en fleurs,” 1918

“If the future is predetermined, then we can know it in advance. But if we can know it in advance, we can change it, so it’s not predetermined.” – futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel

“Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” – Jim Dator, American futurist

“The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.” – Ibn Khaldun, Arab philosopher of history, “The Muqaddimah”

“Time present and time past – are both perhaps in time future – and time future contained in time past.” – TS Eliot, “Four Quartets”

“No two men living at the same time live in the same time.” – Elliott Jaques, psychologist and expert on human organizations, “The Form of Time,” 1982

“In reality there is only the present, because the past no longer exists and the future does not exist yet. Of the past and the future only the images exist, and these only in the present in our minds. The future, like the past, is but an ‘extension’ of our minds.” – Jean-Claude Schmitt, French medievalist, “Medieval Futures,” 2000

“All futurity / Seems teeming with endless destruction never to be repelled / Desperate remorse swallows the present in a quenchless rage.” – William Blake (1757-1827), “The Four Zoas – Night the Eighth”

“It may be the case that Fortune is the mistress of one half our actions, and yet leaves the control of the other half, or a little less, to ourselves.” – Niccolo Machiavelli, “The Prince”

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” – Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century philosopher

“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” – Dennis Gabor, winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics, “Inventing the Future,” 1964

“There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man’s reason has never learned to distinguish between them.” – Bernard Berenson, Renaissance art expert, “The Decline of Art”

“The knowledge of future things is, in a word, identical with that of the present; it is a knowledge in repose and thus a knowledge transcending the processes of thought.” – Plotinus, Roman philosopher, early 200s

“The only possible guarantee of the future is responsible behavior in the present.” – Wendell Berry, 20th century essayist and philosopher, “The Unsettling of America,” 1977

“The only certain thing about the future is that it will surprise even those who have seen the furthest into it.” – E.J. Hobsbaum, 20th century historian

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” – R. Buckminster Fuller, 20th century engineer, mathematician, and architect

“Thoughtful people are concerned with the future because that is the only area of experience about which anything can be done. We cannot change the past, and the present is gone as soon as it is reported, but the future is that in which we can make a difference.” – Elton Trueblood, “The Future of the Christian,” 1971

“If we can change our priorities, achieve balance and understanding in our roles as human beings in a complex world, the coming era can well be that of a richer civilization, not its end.” – Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982)

“As for the future, your task is not to foresee but to enable it.” – Max Jakobson, 20th century Finnish diplomat

“The only way you can predict the future is to build it.” – Alan Kay, turn-of-the-millennium technology innovator

“The future is purchased by the present. It is not possible to secure distant or permanent happiness but by the forbearance of some immediate gratification.” – Samuel Johnson, 1751

“Who controls the past controls the future… Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, mid-20th century journalist and writer

“The solutions to our problems depend less on technological advances and economic growth than on human will guided by a ‘moral compass’ requiring a change of heart about how we live and work, how we produce things and how we treat other people and other species.” – Charles Birch, in the magazine 21C

“The search for the truth is in one way hard and in another easy –  for it is evident that no one of us can master it fully, nor miss it wholly. Each one of us adds a little to our knowledge of nature, and from all the facts assembled arises a certain grandeur.” – Aristotle, Greek philosopher

“It is far better to foresee even without certainty than not to foresee at all.” – Henri Poincare. French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, in the book “The Foundations of Science,” a compilation of his writing between 1905 and 1914

“The future has waited long enough. If we do not grasp it, other hands, grasping and bloody, will.” – Adlai Stevenson, American politician, 1963

“This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one.” – Arthur C. Clarke, 20th century writer and visionary

“I did not say the future could be foretold, but I said that its conditions could be foretold.” – H.G. Wells, science fiction writer, late 19th century to early 20th century

“Sooner or later, we sit down to a banquet of consequences.” – Robert Louis Stevenson, writer, 1885

“It is the business of the future to be dangerous.” – Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher

“If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance.” – Italo Calvino in the book “Invisible Cities”

“I have seen the future, and it is still in the future.” – James Gleick, American writer