The future is never finished

Started during the reign of King Louis VII in 1163, Notre Dame cathedral took 182 years to build. Four or five generations of stone masons, carpenters and labours worked on the gargantuan construction project. Today we build virtual worlds for 2.9 billion people in the time it would have taken one of those stone masons to learn his craft. What differs in the minds of those that built things centuries ago to those that build today is not only their concept of time and what the future holds but more importantly the concept of whether something is ever finished.

If we’re building something that has an end state, a point in time when that thing will no longer be changed, then perhaps we may think more deeply about getting it right. If we expect that what we build will never be finished, will always be changing, can always be undone and redone, then we might not approach it with the same depth of consideration.

Philosopher Derek Parfit said, “We live during the hinge of history”, to describe the hypothesis that given how much change society has seen over the last few centuries, we are at a point in time where present humanity has more influence over the future of humanity than it has ever had before. We could look to the obvious advances in technology like A.I. or social ideologies like Democracy as holding that influence over the future, but it seems more likely that our ways of thinking and understanding are more likely to endure for the coming millennia.

When we no longer conceive of things as having an end, even as our awareness of existential threat increases, then we implicitly build things that we expect others to take over. We expect these future others to fix our mistakes, correct our errors of judgement, or, perhaps, to just pass them on to their future others. What we build, for now and for the future, becomes always changing, never fixed, in either sense of the word.