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How will today's world be perceived in the future? Author Chuck Klosterman explores the concept

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Chuck Klosterman

It takes a special kind of inquisitive mind to step out of the body’s current state and examine what it would look like from an entirely different perspective. Horace Miner did it in 1956 with his radical paper “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” and author Chuck Klosterman has done it again with his new book “But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.”

The book visualizes the contemporary world as it will appear to those who'll perceive it as the distant past and begs the reader to question what is believed to be true and what is fact. It also asks the reader to identify what we currently hold dear and if those are the appropriate things witch which to be concerned.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Klosterman joined host Don Marsh to discuss his book, pop culture and how he thinks this day in age will be remembered.

“I think this is a fun idea,” Klosterman said. “I’m not an academic. I’m not trying to persuade people to think the way I do. I just think there’s a value, an enriching part of life, to think of problems that don’t necessarily have utility but change the way we feel about day-to-day life.”

His thoughts are indeed thought-provoking and we suggest you listen to the audio to get a full picture of what he’s saying. But, if you’re more of a visual learner, we’ve included some of the most captivating ideas below.

On why he wrote the book:

Klosterman said there were three reasons he thinks he wrote the book. Firstly, he’s just a weird person who likes to visualize history. Secondly, he thinks he was unconsciously writing this book for years by letting his mind wander to the idea of “what if we’re wrong?” Thirdly, he said he learned more about how Moby Dick was largely underappreciated during the time it was written (1851) and it took until post-World War II to reach its place in the American cannon of classic literature.

“This fills me with the sense that our understanding of reality is not stable,” Klosterman said. “That’s always going to be the case. The history of ideas is the history of being wrong.”

"Why does it seem as though the people experiencing any point of history doesn't match up with any people defining what that period was?"

The provocative issue to Klosterman, however, is not that things change over time. It’s the process by which they change.

“It’s not as though our view of the present tense will be different later, that’s not a pressing danger,” Klosterman said. “The way we view the world is the way we view the world, it will change later, we all accept that. The problem is: why does this happen? Why does it seem as though the people experiencing any point of history doesn’t match up with any people defining what that period was?

It’s not really a reflection of what happened, but a later generation’s interpretation of what they want the past to mean.”

On questioning that which no one questions:

In the book, Klosterman interviews some of the greatest thinking minds alive today about the questions “What if we’re wrong?” People like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Linklater and Junot Diaz.

The cover of Klosterman's book.
Credit Penguin Random House
The cover of Klosterman's book.

He said he started out those interviews by laying out he wasn’t trying to contradict any interviewee’s view of basic reality — their views were probably similar. Instead, he’d ask interviewees to entertain that basic things we accept as fact are wrong. To couch that answer, however, he’d say “I know some things, like gravity, are off the table. Everyone knows that’s fact.”

One scientist he interviewed said that our view of gravity, could at some later date be viewed as wrong.

“Our understanding of gravity is roughly 350 years old,” Klosterman said.

Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein helped craft the concept of what we know is gravity today. For 2,000 years prior to that, however, the world believed what Aristotle believed: that objects fell to the Earth because they wanted to.

That same kind of thinking shift could occur well into the future.

Klosterman said that most people were “unusually interested” in discussing the idea of what fundamentals they could be wrong on.

“The stakes are low,” Klosterman said, pointing out that he was asking people to envision a world 400 years from now…when each of the interviewees would be dead. “There’s no risk in speculating on this.”

On the changing idea economy:

Klosterman thinks that today is harder than any other time in history to have a new idea.

"What would it say to an intellectual person if you told them: there's nothing left for you to learn except what has already been learned?"

“The internet has allowed us to compile this knowledge in a way that makes it accessible to all people,” Klosterman said. “It makes it more difficult to upend or contradict ideas. If there was an idea from the 1700s, there was very limited amount that was written about it at the time. We have the idea, who supported, those who disagreed. Now, any idea in culture has hundreds upon thousands of voices discussing it. It seems like we’re creating a greater sense of intellectual diversity. For the most part, we are galvanizing the idea. We’re creating this illusion that our understanding of the world is the understanding that will go on in perpetuity.”

That’s a detrimental way to think in Klosterman’s view.

“What would it say to an intellectual person if you told them: there’s nothing left for you to learn except what has already been learned,” Klosterman said. “Part of the experience of being alive is the quest for new knowledge. The quest for new knowledge is an acceptance that what we currently believe is flawed.”

On who or what will be popular in the future:

Klosterman said there are three possibilities:

  1. The people we think are great now will continue to be seen as great. (“The history of ideas says that almost never happens,” Klosterman added.)
  2. It will be someone who is known but not respected or taken seriously in the current time.
  3. It will be someone completely and totally unknown.

It is likely that the person who becomes important in a historical context will fall in the last two categories, Klosterman continued.
“There are figures in the popular culture, towering figures, that will be lost not even 300 years but, say, 50 years,” Klosterman said. “If you think about the presence of the peers of Elvis Presley: How many of those people does a 20-year-old person have a working knowledge of unless they are really consumed by the progenitors of rock?”

One person will likely become the face of an entire genre and that person will be chosen based on what that person means to those in the future.

On couching exactly how much one person can know:

“I don’t know anything more than anyone else,” Klosterman said. “I’m interested in the process of how this happens. My ability to sort of know something or have an insight that’s impossible for someone else to have, that’s not there. In fact, if I was able to predict something or I made an attempt to predict something it almost suggests that it won’t happen. The things that will happen are usually unpredictable.”

On insecurity as a writer:

“I always feel in some ways a little insecure,” Klosterman said. “I like to write about these big ideas, and yet, am I qualified? Who is qualified to write about these big ideas? Probably no one. Certainly not me. I love doing it. I hope people like these books but I have to be aware that I have a limited mind, I’m just this person. I’m just this dude.”

On the possibility that we’re all just part of someone else’s videogame:

“Mathematically, the likelihood that the reality we’re experiencing is real is actually less plausible that the idea in some distant future, some person is playing an advanced video game where they people in the game are self-aware and the experience we’re having is just computer simulation,” Klosterman said. “When you first hear that, it sounds crazy, but the more you think about it, it is actually much more sensible than it seems on the surface. One thing it does is explain away the unexplainable.”

Many people will ask why terrible horror is allowed to happen if there is a just God. If we’re part of a video game with a capricious player, terrible tragedy makes more sense because of that capriciousness.

“It is an interesting intermediary,” Klosterman said. “It is not like saying God doesn’t exist, it’s just saying someone in between, someone named Brenda or something is working through this. It’s a fascinating way to think about life and morality.”

For more insights on the “Simulation Theory,” Klosterman describes here, read this from Oxford philosophy professor Nick Bostrom.

On his predictions of what will be around 400 years from now:

“It seems as though the internet or some extension of the internet will still be a part of life,” Klosterman said.

"The fact we lived through the dawn of the internet, this period of time will be remembered for that alone."

   “As a result, the fact we lived through the dawn of the internet, this period of time will be remembered for that alone. I feel lucky as a journalist, I started my career, there was no internet. I’ll end my career, that’s the only thing there’ll be. I can actually remember it happening—the first time you heard of this, the first time you got email. Every person going forward is native to this, they’ll have no memory of this the same way I have no memory of there not being television. The internet is intertwined with every occupation now. The fact that we lived through the beginning of that technological invention will probably be the thing people remember about this period of time.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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