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Shadows of the future

May 5, 2010

What makes it possible for cooperation to emerge is the fact that players might meet again. This possibility means that the choices made today not only determine the outcome of this move, but can also influence the later choices of the players. The future can therefore cast a shadow back upon the present and therefore affect the current strategic situation.  –Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation

‘The shadow of the future’ is Robert Axelrod’s term to describe the rational shift from exploitative to cooperative behavior. When you have to deal with your neighbors every day, exploiting them now means opening yourself to retaliation later and forswearing the benefits of future, long-term cooperation. Not so, of course, when the game is a one-off, when the future is closed and there is no possibility of retaliation or cooperation. Then the rational, if contemptible thing to do is to carpe diem and to hell with everyone and everything else.

This is all equally true when what one has to either cooperate with or exploit is not another person or group but the natural environment in which one lives.


Monuments are shadows of the past. They honor the dead. Moreover, every monument will eventually be experienced as the work of people who are, at the time of experiencing, dead. Monuments connect the living not only with the dead and but with the ways that the dead have remembered the more distant dead. This is one way monuments can be a source comfort: they ensure that your act of remembrance will, in a small way, be remembered when you are dead.

Is it possible to have a monument to the future, something that casts its shadow? Would a monument dedicated to the future commemorate the future or merely its builders’ anticipation of the future? Would it be futuristic? (Nothing dates as quickly as futurism.) How do you commemorate something that hasn’t happened yet? How do you honor things and people which do not yet exist?

Imagine two walls facing each other at opposite ends of a reflecting pool, each dense with names. Names are continually taken off one wall and transferred to the other. One wall is for the past, the other for the future. This is obviously impossible in practice for several reasons.

Some people erect monuments to the unborn, but this is not the same as honoring future people. Pro-lifers honor the unborn precisely because they think that the unborn are not merely future people. They think they are already people. Still, is this part of the reason that the pro-life movement has such a hold on some people, that it can seem after a fashion like a way of honoring future people? / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A proper ‘monument’ to the future and to future people would, I suppose, have to be something self-renewing, organic, chaotic, and unplanned. For if it were designed, no matter how artfully, it would instantly become a reminder of the moment, soon to be passed, when it was conceived, completed, or dedicated. What is needed is something that, like the future, fundamentally escapes human intention.

photo available under a creative commons license

We have gone from seeing nature as divine to seeing it as an obstacle to be overcome to seeing it as property to be managed. The next step is to see it as an enshrinement of future people.

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