Culture

The future is now

Culture | The millennial letdown reminds us why most human predictions are wrong

Issue: "The Morning After," Jan. 15, 2000

The year 2000. For much of the last century, the year 2000 has been the hallmark, the defining symbol, of the future. And now, here it is. We have arrived. But it is not what we expected. For baby boomers, at least, the year 2000 conjures up images of space odysseys, The Jetsons, and Walt Disney's Tomorrowland. We imagined that we would be living in buildings that would look like Seattle's Space Needle. We would dress in space suits, fly around in our rocket packs, and take vacations on other planets. Certainly things are different than they were in the 1950s, but they are different in unexpected ways. In the year 2000, seers predicted, women would no longer have to face the drudgery of housework, as machines would clean, cook, and perform household chores. To be sure, we do have dishwashers, microwaves, and other labor-saving household technologies. But few predicted that, with so many women rejecting or being forced to abandon the role of housewife altogether, no one would be at home. In the year 2000, monorails, moving sidewalks, and flying cars would take care of our transportation needs. Now, the monorails of Disneyland and Seattle have a retro feel, the only moving sidewalks are in airports, and the 2000 model automobiles remain caught in the same old traffic. In the year 2000, space would become the ultimate frontier. We would make voyages of discovery, establish colonies on other worlds, and have unlimited access to new resources, living space, and personal adventure. Few predicted that our most imaginative technological creations would be concentrated not on exploration but on entertainment, and that we would prefer exciting fantasies rather than experiences. Some people predicted great things of computers, but not that there would be so much power in a laptop. No one predicted the Internet, the World Wide Web, or e-commerce. True innovations are largely unpredictable. Most predictions of the 1950s were simply extrapolations of then-current trends. From the recently invented vacuum cleaner and electric dryer to the self-cleaning house and robotic butlers. From the interstate highway system and the airline industry to even higher-tech ways to move people around. From frontiers on earth to cultural adventure in the stars. It was natural for us heirs of the Industrial Revolution, after two centuries of technological progress, to imagine the future in terms of technology-but the most important changes have not been merely technological but cultural and moral. To be sure, the sexual revolution, the divorce epidemic, the crises in child rearing, the acceptance of abortion, and the like have been aided and abetted by technological innovations such as the birth control pill and the entertainment media. But the gizmos became significant because many people were eager to use them. Medicine has shown the most dramatic progress and regress. Think of fetal-tissue research: Even horror authors did not write of cannibalizing children to make them into medicine. And yet, this is what we have come to, and few people even notice. Most current projections of what the next century might bring have something to do with computers. But we might just as readily extrapolate from other contemporary trends. Maybe future generations will give up on science altogether, in favor of a new nature worship, or schooling designed merely to help students get in touch with their feelings. Perhaps the current political apathy and superficiality will end with Americans giving up constitutional self-government completely. Perhaps the trivialization of the legal system, with judges and legislators presuming to create and reinterpret laws according to their whims, will end in giving up completely the rule of law. Instead, the politics of the future may center around some more-or-less benevolent despot who will take care of us, while we are content to do what we are told. Perhaps the rise of environmentalism, neo-paganism, and neo-primitivism will herald a new tribalism. Maybe future centuries will find the human race reverting to what it has been through most of its history, tribes of hunter-gatherers huddling in villages. Or, more likely, huddling in a world empire under the thrall of their superiors, worshipping their idols, and in awe of the tiny band of scientists/magicians who run things. Such a society may well be something like that of the ancient Canaanites. Or like Babylon. Christians, of course, have varied perspectives on the future. But despite differences, Christians can be assured that the future is ultimately under the control of Christ, who is, as an old hymn declares, "the potentate of time."

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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