But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past is a book that looks at the world today and imagines how people in the future might see it. This is a broad undertaking and offers a wide variety of angles for analysis.
Some of the topics Klosterman covers are: who will be seen as the embodiment of rock n’ roll, whether our understanding of physics will drastically change, and which writer–if any–that is currently unknown will be seen as a defining figure in retrospect. There is some science and philosophy and history but a little less than I expected.
I was particularly interested in reading this book because for years I had wanted to write a book that was superficially on the same topic–whether things we believe in today will be seen as wrong in the future. When I actually read But What If We’re Wrong, I was surprised to see he was taking the question in a fundamentally different direction than I imagined.
Maybe the best example comes early in the book when Klosterman re-examines The Matrix. He notes that the movie was initially seen as both a bold sci-fi take on the nature of reality and a special effects wow movie. But, since the movie was released, both of the films directors have become transgender females. Thus, The Matrix may be seen as a landmark in the trans-rights movement and the allegory about humans living in a fake world may also be interpreted as a metaphor for people who are trapped in a gender they do not identify with. That’s a very different take on the movie, but it seems plausible. At the very least, it’s interesting.
There is also an interesting discussion on rock ‘n’ roll in which Klosterman debates who, in the distant future, will be seen as the defining rock ‘n’ roll musician. Part of this debate is made too obscure by his delineation between rock and roll, rock ‘n’ roll, and rock, which he classifies as separate genres. It’s hard to imagine that people in the future will not see these differences as even less important than I do. After all, ask the average person about “classical” music and they’ll lump together most everything from 1500-1900 that was played on a piano or with an orchestra. As a music critic, Klosterman sees an important distinction between rock and roll and rock while I believe most people see Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Guns N’ Roses and Green Day as part of the same continuum of guitar-driven “rock” music. And I think people in the future will see it that way too.
But that’s the whole strength and weakness of the book. We can’t see in to the future, so parts of the book feel like overly long discussions about hypotheticals. I actually found some of these discussions to be interesting but I can imagine that some readers would find it absolutely maddening. Klosterman also confidently espouses some personal opinions regarding certain amendments to the constitution and whether voting actually makes a difference as obviously true which is sort of ironic for a book that is questioning whether people in the future will see certain things we believe to be true as true. (As you can see, talking about hypotheticals gets complicated quickly.)
By trying to view the present as if it were the past, But What if We’re Wrong aims extremely high, which is part of the reason why the book, in my mind, doesn’t live up to its promise. Klosterman is only 44 and has a background in arts and entertainment writing. A book of this nature might be more satisfyingly written by a 90-year-old history professor. Someone who has seen massive changes in their own life and has the knowledge of an entire career spent learning about past societies. I think Klosterman also could’ve suceeded by focusing more on the pop-culture angle, where he clearly knows his stuff.
In my mind, Klosterman’s pop-culture centric version of the book could’ve been a tremendous success if he had a few more examples as good as the one about The Matrix. That is genuinely interesting and I think there must be a rich vein of entertainment examples he could’ve drawn on. The OJ Simpson case is one example that has just recently been re-evaluated by society. Once popularly seen as a travesty of justice, some now see the OJ Simpson case as a civil rights victory. Lots of other examples are out there too.
But, I don’t want to seem too critical here. Klosterman bit off a lot by undertaking this book, and I think that is admirable. In the sense that I believe he fell short it is only that his mission was so ambitious and very few people would be able to achieve it. And, as I already mentioned, there are many ways this question could be dissected.
If you’re interested in hypotheticals, the big questions, and how the future may or may not judge the present, But What If We’re Wrong is worth a look. If you’re into books, check out our review of Amazon Books.