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How The Images in Your Mind is Shaping the Future

14/03/2012 13:39


When you think of the future, what do you see? Does it look like the past or the present, or is it perhaps very different from the world we now live in? It might come as a surprise to some, but the mental images or pictures we have of the future actually influences the occurrence of the very future we see in that picture.

Consider the popular images of our time: airplanes smashing into the Twin Towers, the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand, the inauguration of Barack Obama as the USA’s first African-American President , violence in the streets of London and other European cities, the smoldering Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, violent civil unrest and war in the Middle East, starving children in Africa... Whether you’re aware of it or not, if you’re connected to the rest of the world via mass media, these images have a profound influence on how you personally view the world in which we live, and to a large extent also how you view the future.

Not only that – these images, together with all the other pictures and images we carry in our heads from what we’ve seen, heard or experienced throughout our lives – may in a very real sense be shaping or influencing the future.1 This ‘shaping of the future’ happens on two levels: firstly and quiet logically, these events have direct consequences in the future. After the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001, the United States and its allies declared the “War on Terror” which is still impacting the lives of millions of people all over the globe and may continue to do so for decades to come.2 The direct effects of pictures often also apply on a personal level, where perhaps an individual decides to launch a feeding scheme or dedicate his life to HIV/Aids research in reaction to the pictures of suffering and distress or simply where I’m experiencing the discomfort of stricter security measures when I travel.

The second way in which our images of the world influence the future is more subtle and indirect. In The Image of the Future, Fred Polak’s seminal and ground-breaking work in future studies, he proposed that social change occur as a “push-pull process” in which a society is simultaneously “pulled forward by its own magnetic images of an idealized future” and “pushed from behind by its realized past.”3 Man is thus always a “citizen of two worlds” – the present ‘real’ world and the imagined world (formed by our perceptions, feelings, and responses). The future is created through the interaction between these two opposite worlds. In a sense man’s “dualism” is the driving force (what Polak calls the “indispensable prerequisite”) for historical change and the “movement of events in time.”

In other words, while numerous forces work together to create history, Polak believed that “the positive ideas and ideals of humanity, expressed as positive images or visions of the future - make history what it is.”4 These images of the future serve as the motifs and “guiding stars” to the individuals and societies which create and (consciously or subconsciously) pursue them. Here’s how Polak described the influence of images on cultures and civilizations:5

“The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.”

On a very practical level this means that we constantly act on the images we have, and in particular the images of the future (what we expect the future to look or be like). In doing so we help create the future in which we eventually live. The implications are really intense and far-reaching. It means that as we act on our images of the future, we are constantly influencing various levels of human existence: our immediate and future circumstances as individuals; as well as the present and future of our communities, our nations, and – albeit often more indirect – the very future of human civilization.6 Polak provided several examples from past and present cultures to emphasize the role of positive images in their survival:7

“The secret of Greek culture, which came to its second flowering in the Renaissance, lies in the imperishable harmony of its image of the future. The endurance of Jewish culture, reborn today in Israel, lies in its fervently held image of the future, which has survived Diaspora and pogrom alike. The prognosis of the dying Christian culture—if it can be said to be dying—lies in its dying image of the future.”

Perhaps Polak was overly pessimistic to refer to the “dying Christian culture,” but what does the Christian Church’s picture of the future look like? What are the mental images the average citizen of our global village hold of the expected future? How, for example, will these pictures contribute to what Africa’s future will eventually be like as we consciously or subconsciously react on them? Think about it for a moment: the media images of civil war, starving children and dying HIV/Aids sufferers may be somewhat exaggerated stereotypes of Africa, but how many Africans are not caught in an endless cycle of suffering and poverty as a result of the images they have of what life is like and what it will be in future? Right now millions of people are stuck in a daily struggle for survival without any picture or image of a better future.

One way to look at this would be to blame the mass media for stereotyping and sensationalizing and its apparent obsession with bad news. However, consider how you and I often react on these images and how we tend to amplify their effect in our thoughts and conversations... Are we not all guilty of creating a world which is suffering from a critical shortage of positive visions and images for the future? Even more, how often do we as leaders not use these negative images to move and even manipulate people to serve our own agendas? If so, the lack of positive images of the future is nothing less than a global leadership failure, for it is the task of leaders to provide people with images of hope and visions of progress to guide them towards a preferred future...


1. Dator, J. (1993). Future studies and sustainable community development. Presentation made to the Renewing Community as Sustainable Global Village Conference.

2. On This Day: President Bush Declares “War on Terror.” (2010). FindingDulcine. Retrieved September 19, 2010, from

3. Polak, F. (1961). The image of the future. Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company: Netherlands. Retrieved May, 22, 2010 from, p. 1.

4. Schultz, W. L. (1994). Unit Reader 7: America's Alternative Futures: Images Past and Present. Retrieved May, 18, 2010, from Regent Blackboard.

5. Polak, F. (1961). The image of the future. Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company: Netherlands. Retrieved May, 22, 2010 from, p. 19.

6. Schultz, W. L. (1994). Unit Reader 7: America's Alternative Futures: Images Past and Present. Retrieved May, 18, 2010, from Regent Blackboard. 

7. Polak, F. (1961). The image of the future. Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company: Netherlands. Retrieved May, 22, 2010 from, p. 19.

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