I’m slowly coming around to realize that the bulk of our management thinking, training, and practice is built on a useful delusion – that moving through time is like moving through physical space. This may sound philosophical or existential, but it’s inescapable, and also rather central to Arts Management as “the practice of aggregating and animating people, money, and stuff toward expressive ends.”
It is certainly normal and natural to imagine that we’re moving forward, facing forward, into the next moment and beyond – as if the future is some sort of undiscovered country that already exists and awaits us. We think ahead, we move on, we plan for a near or distant moment, we determine and describe milestones along the path ahead. We describe the future as in front of us and the past as behind us. When we make plans in organizations, we talk about compasses, maps, and terrain. Even when we attempt to escape these metaphors, as I did in my previous post, we rely on their language to imagine a different relationship with time.
But if you interrogate the metaphor even a little bit, it falls apart. First, we can’t “move forward” into a next or future moment because there’s nothing to move into. The next moment in time is a cloud of potentialities and probabilities. It’s not a space or a thing until all of those potentialities and probabilities resolve in the present moment. Second, even if we want to hold the metaphor of physical space, we’re not “facing forward” but rather walking backward. As Jonathan Bricklin puts it, inspired by William James (thanks to Adrian Ellis for the link):
Walking backward toward the future, with our eyes facing in the opposite direction from which we are moving, we can stare far into what has already passed, lining up recent past events with distant past events for the greater clarification of both; we just can’t turn around. All events, no matter how preimagined, are unforeseen. Likewise, all expectations, all plans, are merely conceptions in the present. We cannot move toward them as if all that stood between us and their realization were empty space.
To be fair, it’s actually quite productive to imagine that we’re moving forward while facing forward. And our physical, cognitive, and social selves have evolved toward this particular delusion:
- We have predictive brains, that not only prepare us for what’s next, but that also construct what’s happening now, in ways that make the move from present to next present feel coherent.
- We have embodied cognition, where not just our conscious attention but also our full sensory selves are predicting, constructing, and reconstructing the past, present, and future in ways we’re not aware of.
- We have social cognition, which predicts and constructs how we relate to the people around us, and connects us to their predictions and constructions.
- Which gives us social constructions, which we often call culture, that carry and convey collective wisdom, insight, and practices for living.
- We have codes of behavior, often manifesting as laws or social norms, that constrain possible actions for ourselves and the systems around us in ways that help us move forward together.
- And in communities of practice (professional or otherwise) we have conventions, standardized “ways of doing” that make collective effort through time and space more predictable and productive.
So, if it’s working so well for us, what’s wrong with the useful delusion of moving through time as we move through space? There’s nothing wrong with it, within its bounds of utility. But when the present seems increasingly disconnected and discontinuous from past experience, or when we frequently find ourselves in a present that rhymes with a past we didn’t like, it’s worth flagging the delusion for what it is.
Further, it’s worth interrogating the “us” for whom this delusion is working well, and consider how we might disrupt the normal distribution of next probabilities to make space for others to do well, too.
Management maven Ichak Adizes wrote that “Planning is not deciding what to do tomorrow. It is deciding what to do today in light of what you expect and want tomorrow to be.” I would substitute the word “now” for “today,” since even today doesn’t yet exist beyond now. And I would (and will) explore what Arts Management would look, feel, and be like if we moved beyond the useful delusions that have defined its dominant logic so far.
NOTE: This may all read like a white, Western, well-resourced, cisgender, heterosexual man discovering and (poorly) describing a vast array of long-standing worldviews. To which I respond: Fair enough.