Friday, September 9, 2011

Time Travelers

We Are All Time Travelers Now
K. Edward Renner, PhD

Time travel has always captured our imagination.

 We know that when Scrooge saw the future that “was to be,” he changed how he lived in the present. 

But that was fiction. Back then, people could only live in the past tense. Quite literally, today was yesterday: A grandfather could put his hand on his grandson's shoulder and say "son, when I was your age…" and his advice would be relevant because his reality at that age was no different than his grandson's reality at that moment.

All that started to change with the advent of the Modern Era. Science and technology held out the promise that we could make today be whatever we wanted it to be. Over the next 500 years we were gradually freed from living in the past tense. 

Today is today. 

The crown jewel marking the end of the Modern Era was to complete to perfection living in the present tense. We have been living as if there was no tomorrow. 

But now – in the 21st Century -- the momentum of the change that carried us from living in the past tense to living in the present tense has propelled us into a new era. 

Suddenly, today is tomorrow. Now, unexpectedly and unprepared, we have been thrust into the future. Like Time Travelers, what we are now experiencing is incomprehensible based on what we have always believed. 

There are many examples of this time-warp. Population growth is perhaps the clearest illustration of the many transformations, although often imperceptible, that are invalidating our current way of life. 

When I was born in 1936 there were slightly more than 2 billion people on the planet, there is now nearly 7 billion. The planet can roughly hold 9 billion in terms of providing the food and energy we need and absorbing our waste.

In fact, if all 7 billion people now live as we do in the United States it would require five planets Earth to sustain us all. This cannot be. Those of us alive today need to find a solution before we sink the good ship earth with us still on it.  

But, population growth is just one example of how we are racing towards a limit, all within the span of a single lifetime: India has more honors students than America has students. For students in a four year technical degree program, half of what they learn in their first year will be outdated by their third year of study. 

Our human challenge today is to grasp the idea we must start living in the future tense. It is a whole new way of life. Truly, how we respond today will seal the fate of our own tomorrow. 

Unfortunately, a fictional ghost of what “is to be” cannot magically take us to where we can clearly see our own future. Nor, as in science fiction, can we be beamed momentarily into the future. 

The true legacy of the science and technology of the Modern Era are not the smart phones and all the other things we have made. Rather, it is all of the things we now know. 

Fortunately, we are not trapped in the necessity of living in the past tense like our early ancestors. Like the time travelers from literature, we can actually determine our own future based on forehand knowledge of “what is to be.”

That fictional Scrooge-like glimpse into the future is the supreme gift of the knowledge created by the Modern Era. 

What we will actually do with this knowledge will be the final judgment of the great human experiment on earth:  Can human intelligence grasp the notion, as Scrooge came to understand, that today is tomorrow?

At this time in history, learning how to live in a knowledge-based future tense is our purpose. If we so choose, we can let go of our ideological-based present tense and become time travelers. It is a whole new way of thinking. 

What an exciting time to be alive.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­
Professor Renner teaches in the Honors Program at the University of South Florida. This essay is based on his podcast series “Forums for a Future” at

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