Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Valuing the future: cultural references

Following some suggestions on twitter, below are some songs and poems related to the trade-off between the present and the future. I have biased the list a little towards ones I actually like to listen to or read. Feel free to make suggestions.

Time passing:

Pink Floyd's "Time" from the Dark Side of the Moon album is a meditation on life passing by too quickly. "And then the one day you find ten years have got behind you; No one told you when to run; You missed the starting gun".

WH Auden's "Autumn Song" is a reflection on the transitory nature of life  'Nurses to their graves are gone/But the prams go rolling on.' (via @jasonzweigwsj on twitter).

The Beatles "When I'm 64", of course, talks about being 64 from the perspective of one member of a young couple. The fact that the song is so famous and oft-used says something about the embeddedness of that cognition.

Making the most of now:

Neil Young "My, My, Hey, Hey" with the classic follow-up line "Better to burn out than to fade away". (h/t Mark, and @richardtol on twitter). This line featured at the end of the letter written by Kurt Cobain before he died tragically in 1994.

Smashing Pumpkins "Tonight, Tonight" exhorts listeners to "believe in the resolute urgency of now".

There are obviously quite a few songs around the theme that this particular moment matters more than any future moments. Keisha's "Die Young" is a recent example. "And while you're here in my arms, let's make the most of the night like we're gonna die young". .

Robin Williams' famous scene in Dead Poets Society where he urges students to "carpe diem" is a strong reflection on not wasting youth and talent. The poem he refers to is "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time".

There are many songs around the theme of the impulsive nature of sex and romance.

Appreciating a single day: 

This is probably a subset of the previous category but I give it a separate one as the study of diurnal rhythms in motivation and mood is a big field of current study and overlaps heavily with how people make decisions about the future.

Lou Reed "Perfect Day" has been given many interpretations over the years but at one level is certainly about trying to enjoy a day free from the constraints of thinking about pressures one is under.

The Moody Blues "Days of Future Passed" is an amazing album structured from dawn to dusk with many songs and lyrics on the theme of appreciating the moment set alongside concern for the future. (h/t @chb4 on twitter).

Making provisions for your future:

A classic song, "A message to you Rudi" urges someone, probably a son, younger friend or brother, to stop messing around and think about his future. "Better think of your future else you'll wind up in jail". (originally a Dandy Livingstone song).

Book 12 of Homer's Odyssey is the classic tale of the Sirens, often used as a metaphor for temptation and the need for ways to control one's behaviour to avoid being destroyed. Jon Elster's "Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality" is a superb work that develops this theme.

Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" is a well-known song that was written as a break-up song and cleverly used by Bill Clinton in his first presidential campaign. (h/t @BriMcS on twitter).

Longer time horizons:

How we think about and value events that will take place long after we are dead is a theme in many works of art and literature.

Wiki has a useful timeline of events to take place in the far future in reality and in science fiction accounts. The Long Now Foundation "hopes to provide a counterpoint to today's accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years." Their website is very interesting.

Alan Parson's album "Time Machine" deals with many themes around the idea of a long future.

Zager And Evans - In The Year 2525 is a famous hit from the sixties thinking far into the future.

Bob Dylan's "Death is not the end" sung by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue.

Academic references:

Philip Zimbardo's RSA Animate talk "The Secret Powers of Time" is a terrific introduction about how different cultures and individuals think about time.

Frederick, S., Loewenstein, G. & O’Donogue, T. (2002), "Time discounting and time preference: a critical review", Journal of Economic Literature, 40: 351-401.

1 comment:

Martin Ryan said...

This is a very interesting post. And I think a useful addition is a paper that Liam flagged on Twitter before:

The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets.


"Languages differ widely in the ways they encode time. I test the hypothesis that languages that
grammatically associate the future and the present, foster future-oriented behavior. This prediction arises naturally when well-documented effects of language structure are merged with models of intertemporal
choice. Empirically, I find that speakers of such languages: save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. This holds both across countries and within countries when comparing demographically similar native households. The evidence does not support the most obvious
forms of common causation. I discuss implications for theories of intertemporal choice."