History is an angel being blown backwards into the future.
History is a pile of debris,
and the angel wants to go back and fix things,
to repair things that have been broken.
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise,
and this storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future.
And this storm is called Progress.
— From the song “The Dream Before” by Laurie Anderson, based on a quote by Walter Benjamin
One lens that I find useful is whether a project is backward-looking or forward-looking. A backward-looking project is one that attempts to fix something that is broken. A forward-looking project starts with a fresh slate and attempts to create something new.
Both kinds of projects are important and necessary. For example, a backward-looking project might be to tackle corruption in politics. If government doesn’t respond to citizens’ desires and needs, that’s a long-term threat to our society. Likewise, a lot of regulation is backward-looking because it reacts to events. Another example: ton of startups succeed by fixing things that are fundamentally broken today.
An example of a forward-looking project might be to build a self-driving car. With many forward-looking projects there’s an inherent bet that you’ll make something useful enough that when society’s mores and regulations catch up, people will see the value in your project.
An example of forward-looking views is Peter Diamandis, who argues that our future is abundance.
Take something like climate change. A backward-looking approach might try to figure out how to improve coal plants to make them cleaner. A forward-looking approach might be to try to figure out how to build a practical fusion power plant. Projects like smart grids or improved solar cells could be backward-looking or forward-looking depending on the level of granularity.
I don’t really have a good ending to this blog post–this is just a way of looking at the world that interests me. Society will always need people fixing things that are broken. I feel like forward-looking projects might be a little more fun (or at least leave you feeling more optimistic). But unless you choose your project carefully, you run the risk of rushing forward, only to suffer major pain if society disagrees with you.