The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be

There was a time when he believed. And not just because he wanted to believe, but because he really did believe. There was a time when he truly thought that things were always getting better, that the world was a remarkable place where fascinating things happened, every second. He believed that science had a heart, that progress had a conscience, and that true art happened in the last synapse before epiphany, in the unstoppable momentum of an original idea. And for awhile others believed it too, because of him. It wasn’t that he was in denial about the horrors of everyday life–the wars, the greed, the natural disasters, the backward thinking morality of the masses. He just chose to seek out and revel in the progressive, the enlightened, the smallest things that could spark a flame under the ass of change. Then there was a time when, although he still believed, he began to acknowledge the difficulties. He began to recognize that such grand dreams were not so easily overcome. And he began to acknowledge this in his speeches and presentations. He began to criticize the present, and he warned of a more damaged tomorrow if we refused to change. He gave heads-ups and watch-outs, supported by facts and scientifically validated forecast and cautionary tales.

When it was suggested that he might want to put a bit more of a smile back on his work, because clients were complaining, because people were asking for other speakers, his first reaction was to go shock them into epiphany. But that didn’t work at all. People didn’t want wisdom, he soon discovered. They wanted shortcuts to getting more. For a while his clients, other than small liberal art colleges, not-for-profits, and those who hadn’t done their homework, stopped asking for him altogether. His message didn’t match the extravagent, NASDAQ-giddy times. There wasn’t any momentum to it, any positive inevitiabilities. It lacked anything close to a guarantee that the prosperity would never end.

So he altered his approach again. He avoided the dismal truths, the warnings about doomsdays yet to come, and the tried to be encouraging. But they didn’t buy that either. Clients found it patronizing, condescending. It came off more like a lecture than a speech. More like a reason to feel guilty than a reason to be excited.

Finally the think tank threatened to drop him. The lecture agent stopped taking his calls. The press rarely mentioned him. So he changed again. He began telling people what they wanted to hear. He began to customize this optimism to specific industries, specific companies, specific versions of tomorrow. And this is important: he wasn’t lying, at first. The main difference was that he was telling only the good parts, the truths they wanted to hear. The bad parts he left out entirely. It was easy. Appearance after appearance, everyone ate it up, and soon he was a player again. He got a new lecture agent; the think tank gave him his own subbrand. His appearance fees tripled, and he was a rock star in the arena of what-if. Everything was great, as long as he didn’t think about it too much.

But he did. Eventually Lauren stopped listening to what he had to say, because it was all the same, all a bit too good. His father, who had never taken his job seriously began to think that these prophecies were borderline delusional–at least, that’s what his mother told him. Blevin’s reaction to his latest reincarnation was to try to steer Yates back toward the material that had attracted him to Yates in the first place. But that didn’t work, and for awhile, until Johannesburg, Belvin questioned Yates less and less and could hardly look him in the eye when Yates asked his opinions of his latest insights. The only people who loved what Yates was saying were the people for whom he had less and less repect, including himself.

Then the stock market collapsed, the Internet frenzy cooled, and buildings and bombs started to fall, and he didn’t have any new wisdom to truth or reason to believe that he could honestly tell anyone anymore. And the only way he could come up with a way to make people feel good, to tell them what they wanted to hear, was to start making things up.

-From The Futurist: A Novel by James Othmer (p188-190)

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