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The Future Rewrites the Past


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
November 14, 2011

A major folly in the linear model of time is that the past is a static entity, meaning that once something happens, it remains frozen, as if in amber, for all future time. Classical natural science works that way and, by direct analogy, so do the social sciences. Such linearization of time relies on the assumption that we have the right model of the world; but if our model changes, so must the past change with it.

I think about the past a lot, probably because I think about time a lot. My own personal past, however, is clearly not static. Notwithstanding my forgetting or misremembering of certain past events, the more I learn about the world as I move into the future, the more I understand my own past. Small insights that happen as one moves into the future can lead to drastic reinterpretations of the past events.

For most people none of this matters, because most people are lost in the present or the past or some ill-defined combination of the two. People usually develop an idea of where they are going in their lives at a relatively early age, but as time passes they tend to forget exactly what they were trying to accomplish. This is not entirely bad because childish ambitions are usually not very well thought out. For most people, ill-considered ambitions of being an astronaut or ballerina are eventually replaced by something more practical and these original ambitions are eventually forgotten (as is what replaced them).

Although he was still among the living when I conceived this commentary a few months ago, Steve Jobs is a good example of how the future rewrites the past. I did not know Steve personally, but I knew plenty of guys who were like him to varying degrees. California in the 1970s, especially the South where I was as opposed to the North where Steve was, was full of doped-up scammer-dreamers. (California was where hyphenates were born.) Stuart Margolin's Angel Martin character in The Rockford Files (Rockford's "buddy" that he met in prison) is a good example of a vintage 70s scammer. I have not read the new Jobs biography, but from what I recall he and Woz had at least one close brush with the law when they were running their massively illegal "blue box" business. Indeed, Jobs's unsavory activities were not anomalous; they are measured in biographical chapters, not pages.

Steve's lucky fellow scammers have likely moved on to more nominally legal scams in entertainment, technology, finance, you name it, rather than prison. This cohort's clever subversions of the system during the wild and wooly '70s are largely lost to posterity because their futures unfolded differently from Steve's. His sordid past, however, is something he can never escape and it lives on into eternity with or without him. The blue box business with Woz is not viewed as merely an innocent youthful error in judgment; instead, it is seen as a trial run for what became Apple. Indeed, in light of the fact that Jobs would eventually engineer the nearly miraculous resurrection of a major corporation from near-certain death, every blemish of his life has come under the microscope. While Jobs may have been thought of as "that asshole" in his youth, in light of future events he is now remembered as that and much, much more.

Incidentally, my concept of "the past" is something different from what passes as "history." The victors (and those with good publishing contacts) may get to write history, but I see the past as a massive objective conglomeration of memories and artifacts, few of which ever make it into the history books. Because the past exists in the physical form of neurons, electrons, and yellowing high school yearbooks, it is subject to the same decay that afflicts all physical entities as well as their (selective) conscious preservation.

As Fox Mulder might say, the past is out there. With the Internet (and Facebook in particular), the past is even more out there. Indeed, many aspects of the past do only fail to decay; they can suddenly be drudged up out of nowhere. Old local and school newspapers are out there now to fill in curious little details of the past. Not surprisingly, when faced with the source code of my past, it was not exactly the way that I remembered it; not better, not worse, just different.

During a brief break from writing this, I happened across the early seasons of The Twilight Zone that have been transferred to HD and available gratis on Amazon Prime Instant Video. Watching old Twilight Zones in HD, even the limited HD available over the Internet, is an eerie experience (on high-bandwidth Blu-Ray it is undoubtedly even more eerie). Aside from the fact that the nature of the past, present, and future are a frequently recurring themes on The Twilight Zone, seeing the show in HD is viewing a past that never even existed. I saw the original shows (as well as their numerous syndicated reruns a few years later) on the questionable televisions of the day with even more questionable reception. The HD transfers of the show from the original film masters when viewed on a good HD monitor (even over the Internet) are closer to the film they were shot on than they are to broadcast television of the 1960s. Watching Twilight Zone episodes about the past and the future in a mode that turns that past into an unforeseen future is simply mind-boggling. If Rod Serling were still around, he would probably do an episode about how the current version of the past could be truer than the past as it actually occurred (and commercial-free to boot).

Unfortunately, in the realms of finance and economics, the past cannot be so easily reconstructed. The economic past does not flow into the future in an orderly manner. It does not even shift from one regime to another in an orderly manner. The clichéd "point of inflection" does not begin to explain the tangled paths taken by financial and economic variables. The financial past is always changing because in trying to understand the economic past we simply jump from one bad model to another.

For the next two months I plan to cruise straight into the future, contemplating the past as little as possible. When I return to these commentaries in February, I will notch up another adventure in retailing with a look at the first ShopRite to locate in Upstate New York.

Copyright 2011 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to