The Proper Aim of Art

7 Minute Read

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art. 

Oscar Wilde

For my first tech job, I worked as a software engineer at Rockwell Space Systems in Seal Beach, California. In those days, Rockwell convened occasional all-hands meetings in one of the giant hangars where the Space Shuttle Columbia was being assembled. For my first all-hands, I hadn’t realized how popular the event would be and arrived unfashionably on time to a packed makeshift auditorium. Ducking as I scampered to the only open seat in the middle of the first row, I plopped down next to a Colonel Sanders look-alike (and shuttle engineer not-a-bit-like in his cream-colored three-piece suit) just in time for a friendly nod before the Colonel was called to the pulpit to give the keynote presentation. His name was Ray Bradbury.

After cajoling the audience with tales of writing down the telephone numbers of all the people he met during the 60s who scoffed at Kennedy’s idea of going to the moon so he could later call them all after July 20, 1969 and gloat, he settled into a short story he was writing that week—he wrote a new one every week—about a 30-year-old inventor who built a time machine from old Jules Verne blueprints.

Traveling 100 years into the future, the inventor was welcomed by a utopian society where poverty, hunger, crime, and war had all been eliminated. He collected proof of his adventure in the form of pictures and films so that when he got back to the present, he could publish his future vision to the world. To his delight, the world took notice and set about eradicating poverty, hunger, crime, and war, and 100 years later achieved all of the above.

“We made it!” he said. “We did it! The future is ours. We rebuilt the cities, freshened the small towns, cleaned the lakes and rivers, washed the air, saved the dolphins, increased the whales, stopped the wars, tossed the solar stations across space to light the world, colonized the moon, moved on to Mars, then Alpha Centauri. We cured cancer and stopped death. We did it.”

Now age 130, the venerable writer was asked to be the guest of honor at a ceremony in Long Beach harbor to commemorate and actually observe the long-awaited landing there of his time machine launched 100 years in the past. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the highly anticipated countdown ended in…


“It was all a lie,” confessed the time traveler. “But look around you. What a wondrous lie it turned out to be!”

When Hippocrates encouraged his students to “Foretell the future,” it is unclear by the usual English translation of his Epidemics whether foretelling the future refers to some kind of divination process employed by prophets and oracles—veritable professionals in Hippocrates’ culture—or to a phenomenon much less mystical. In ancient Greece, if an individual wanted to gain insight from the future, she could consult a mantis, a word usually translated as prophet or seer. For a fee, the mantis would interpret a variety of natural artifacts like clouds, leaves, or the entrails of some poor creature and divine from them which specific fate might soon (or eventually) befall the seeker. By Hippocrates’ day in the fourth century BC, professional prophesying had become so commonplace that an administrative layer of scholars and analysts arose to support the oracular business model. Based on his pragmatic approach to medicine, it is more likely that Hippocrates, an imminent scholar-scientist himself, encouraged his acolytes to prophesy not magically but based on observable evidence.

Hippocrates’ full statement to his followers was, “Declare the past; diagnose the present; foretell the future; practice these acts.” In that holistically temporal context—the next sentence referred to the Hippocratic staple to “at least do no harm”—Hippocrates’ admonished his followers to foretell the future as a prescription for tracing a patient’s history and current symptoms across time. Writing on a full temporal slate, he formed his prognosis in much the same way the modern physick would one day emulate him. For physicians, ancient and modern, projecting the past and present onto the future only bears fruit when they can declare, diagnose, and foretell the complete picture. But what if a patient hopes to foretell a future radically different from the one predicted by her past? What if she could change an otherwise predetermined fate?

Prophecy is history in reverse. 
And of the two, prophecy is the more certain.

Owen James Stevens

Decades after meeting Ray Bradbury, I became curious to know whether his time traveler tale had ever been published. When prefacing the story at Rockwell, he mentioned he had already submitted a first draft to a popular magazine. Given Bradbury’s reputation as a writer, odds were that magazine or another had picked up the story, and I would be able to track it down. Nowhere to be found for years—knowing its published title would have made my search easier–I eventually found it in a 2019 edition of a Simon and Schuster anthology bearing the story’s title.

The Toynbee Convection, named for the British historian who believed that imagination powered the future, was originally published in 1984 (an auspicious year for futurists like Bradbury) as late as two full years after I had met him. In the interim, the tale had morphed into one essential detail. Kept was the anticipation of the 2084 inventor’s reunion with the 1984 version of himself on both their birthdays, though 100 years apart. (A couple of minor details had also crept into the ending–that the paradoxical reunion was to occur not in Long Beach but La Jolla, and that after the reunion, the venerable inventor was to unveil the second time machine, this one to take him on his final voyage. You’ll want to read its surprise ending here.) But what surprised me when I read the published version was Bradbury’s descriptive inclusion of the 1984 backstory that brought the 30-year-old inventor to fabricate the myth of a transformed future in the first place.

In Bradbury’s 1984 version of 2084, the world, as experienced by the inventor, had become an unbearable place to live. He described a time when people had stopped believing in themselves, doubt and destruction abounding, filled with “professional despair, intellectual ennui, political cynicism.”

You name it; we had it. The economy was a snail. The world was a cesspool. Economics remained an insolvable mystery. Melancholy was the attitude. The impossibility of change was the vogue. “End of the world” was the slogan. Nothing was worth doing. Go to bed at night full of bad news at eleven, wake up in the morn to worse news at seven. Trudge through the day underwater. Drown at night in a tide of plagues and pestilence. Ah!

It was in the midst of this death spiral that the inventor launched the plot to deceive and transform the world.

I sometimes wonder, were I given access to a fictitious time machine, what I would choose to “see” as I hovered over the future. Like the pilot of The Toynbee Convector, would I gather images and artifacts I might then reverse-archaeologize on my return? And like Plato’s prodigal cave dweller, would I then risk my life to convince fellow present-timers that something better awaited them if they would just have faith in me? Or would I, like the folks Ray Bradbury telephoned in 1969 to tell them the eagle did indeed land, be content settling for minor corrections? As I consider the possibility that my “knowing” the future might lead to ways to enable it, I shrink Toynbee’s 100-year time box to something more manageable.

In the context of faith, hope is, in one crucial dimension, its polar opposite. Hope is received by the believer drawn to it from without; faith is exercised in her response to it from within.

When I career-counsel young people newly embarking on their professional lives, I encourage them to create what I call their future resumes. Not unlike looking around the present and building a time machine for exploring the future, I tell them to write two resumes. The first lists everything they are doing right now, today. No embellishment. No “Won international construction award”–aka the Build-a-Big-Mac-Sweepstakes. The baseline resume must be brutally accurate. “Declare the past” means just that. The first resume is a declaration of our actual history, as clearly as we can recall it.

The second resume I ask them to write is of the future. It lists all the things they hope to have accomplished in the next five years. They can use their current baseline resume as a reference point. Or not. Since the future resume is their own fabrication, it can truthfully say things like “Won international construction award” if that is what they hope to have accomplished five years hence.

Once both resumes are complete, I invite them to place the two documents side by side, printed or on the screen. I then instruct them to draw transition lines between the past and the future versions. Each line prescribes a list of tasks to be recorded in a third document. To accomplish all the bullets in their future resume, what skills, training, and experience will they need between today and five years from now to render their predictions accurate? What assignments should they accept, beg for, or shy away from? What projects should they take on or invent for themselves? Which individuals should they seek to mentor them?

(I wrote my first future resume under the tutelage of Dr. Richard Schroth, a mentor I sought in 1988 whose own relationship with the future can be characterized as anything but a-causal. Above his door at Marriott International, where I met him, hung an invisible sign that only a handful of us even knew existed. It read, “The Myth Starts Here,” paraphrasing Napoleon Hill’s “If you can conceive it, you can achieve it” mantra. When Rich left Marriott in 1991, he and I held our own Toynbee ceremony where he climbed onto a chair and carefully removed the sign so he could take it with him to his next adventure.)

Call it a plan, a must-do list—in my systems work, I call it a transition architecture—maybe a transition resume would be a more visually descriptive term of art for the list of faith-centered actions that connect the present and future resumes. The thing to remember is that in the context of faith, hope is, in one crucial dimension, its polar opposite. Hope is received by the believer drawn to it from without; faith is exercised in her response to it from within.

The best thing about foretelling the future is that there is so much of it. What Bradbury is telling us in The Toynbee Convector is not that some well-intentioned though arguably prevaricating prophetess can imagine a distant utopia; but that when she does, the rest of us can begin building its artifacts that very hour. The work of foretelling the future is not its conception but its delivery. What else might the present, which Hippocrates suggests we diagnose, be for?


2 thoughts on “The Proper Aim of Art

  1. What a discovery! I’d love to know if this short story was ever broadly reviewed, It sounds like a tucked away treasure that could really be turned into something more.
    This idea of how concrete our futures become when we believe that they are, is so fascinating. Just like how children find it impossible to distinguish between fantasy and reality as infants and toddlers, so we become influenced in real time by futures we are certain are true. Makes me want to choose wisely what I play in my mind and what I work towards!

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