The Future as Risk

This post is related to earlier posts on risk and time.

In Risk: A Sociological Theory, Luhmann writes,

This does not of course mean that the distinction of past and future has only now been invented, nor that the concept of the future is only now developing. (38)

But in a footnote Luhmann concedes that

With regard to the ‘future’ one now no longer thinks primarily of things awaiting one.

This mention of the future as what is awaiting one likely refers to the old belief that the future already exists somewhere, like a distant port awaiting the arrival of a ship. Thus, the future cannot be altered; we can only arrive there to see what has been there all along. But it would be inaccurate to claim that all traditional cultures conceived of time this way, and we don’t need to make that such a strong claim anyway.

Luhmann goes on to write,

That the demands made on time semantics are subject to change is to be attributed partly to the development of printing, and partly to the emergence of a multitude of specialized function systems. Taken together, both changes put time under complex pressures. In particular, the printing press now revealed how much knowledge already existed simultaneously, so that new selection and classification requirements arose. (38)

A prime exemplar of this classification movement was Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the “father of modern taxonomy” and the inventor of the index card, which was a way to deal with information overload. From Wikipedia:

Linnaeus published Philosophia Botanica in 1751. The book contained a complete survey of the taxonomy system he had been using in his earlier works. It also contained information of how to keep a journal on travels and how to maintain a botanical garden.

(The bit about keeping a travel journal is interesting to me because I’m currently reading the journals of one of the great travel journal writers of the second half of the 18th century–James Boswell.)

Luhmann continues:

The machinery to ensure consistency, the operatively accessible memory of the system, became so overloaded that more powerful material and temporal distinctions had to be found to re-establish order. Hence in about 1600 the system concept began its historical career. Moreover, it now made sense to produce new knowledge specifically for print, whereas in an earlier period it had already been an achievement simply to reproduce knowledge to preserve it from oblivion. In addition, the individual function systems now projected divergent time-horizons. The time of the merchant was not that of the monk; the time in which political intentions had to be kept secret was not the time required for a new theory to gain recognition. Calendars and clocks now measured rearguard positions from which one could continue to speak about the same time, whereas it previously served principally to determine what was to happen at fixed times. (38-39)

The last sentence refers to how calendars were (and still are) used by the Catholic Church to mark when we are supposed to do something, like celebrate a saint’s day, Lent, Easter, Christmas, etc. And clocks were used in monasteries to mark times for prayer. These are the canonical hours–matins, lauds, prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline.

In the modern sense of time, the present is the moment of decision, and every decision is risky. Even the refusal to make a decision is a decision that carries a risk. The present can be thought of as the blind spot in the observation of time. It is not a third element in the past-present-future semantics of time. We can also say that the present lasts as long as it take for an event to become irreversible.

If it’s true that modernity puts more emphasis on decision, we would expect to see this reflected in the Google Books corpus. Here is an ngram for decision+decide from 1700-2000:


This graph shows a clear rise beginning in about 1750, adding support to what Luhmann says about the second half of the 18th century. Here is the ngram for the french décision.


In this case, the upward trend doesn’t become consistent until about 1860, and then jumps sharply in the 1940s. Here is the graph for the German translation, Entscheidung.


A second key term in this social change is probability. Here is an ngram for the English words probability+probable+probably.


This indicates a sharp rise after 1700, and then a leveling off a century later.


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