A thing I wrote four years ago today, about the future
In the past days and weeks, I’ve been flooded with memories. Memories that I shouldn’t recall. Places that I envision so completely, so definitively, yet I cannot fully set them in reality. Where was that house? What was that store? When did we take that trip? The images come fast and furious, but they aren’t always accompanied by facts or sounds or faces… all of which would help me put the pieces back together.
I’ve always believed that human memory is so much more powerful than we’re taught. I truly think that if not everything, most of it is all there, sitting in deep storage. The reason we don’t remember it has to do with some kind of blockage, some disorganization in the warehouse of our minds. We can’t recall every last detail mostly because we didn’t organize them very well when they first arrived. And yet they’re there. This is how I explain my random bursts of lucid memory. I don’t think science fully backs me up, but I don’t care.
In a paradoxical twist — or maybe it all makes perfect sense — I’ve also spent a lot of the year thinking about the future. More than ever, it frightens me. For years I’ve been telling people the most accurate depictions of the future in science fiction of recent years were in Minority Report and, most of all, Wall-E. Last week, in a trip to McDonald’s I mentioned here a couple days ago, I saw one of the first signs.
In line in front of us was a man with an iPad in his hand. Not just an iPad mind you, but one that was on. He was playing video poker on it. In line. When he got to the counter and the young man asked for his order, the guy didn’t even look up from his screen. “Large drink and fries,” he said. And then I panicked.
He wasn’t a particularly large man, neither in height nor weight, but in him I saw the terrible future predicted by Wall-E. One day we will all be staring at our screens and will float around in chairs because we’re too fat and weak to do otherwise.
Now, I’m not saying I’m not complicit in this lamentable evolution. I stare at a screen — whether it be a computer, TV, phone or iPad — for most of the day. But I also like to think I know how to unplug. I know how to use things appropriately. In the presence of others, I try not to aimlessly stare into my phone. I try to be engaged. I also am not above being away from these devices. When I am, I quickly remember how much I appreciate not having them around, even if they have made life “easier”.
This isn’t a case of my luddite tendencies showing themselves, nor is it a case — at least I don’t believe it is — of mindless nostalgia. Things weren’t better before. They were just different. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling of late that humanity is headed down a path of destruction.
I was going to say “society”, but then corrected myself. If I can actually separate the two, I would say that society is doing alright in a lot of respects. Humanity, however, is failing. I won’t be one of those zealots saying we’re all going to hell because we live in a godless world. I won’t be one of those hyper-conservatives saying gay marriage is ruining the fabric of society. I won’t be one of the tea party people saying we’re headed towards a socialist, interventionist government.
I will say that partisanship is ruining this country and probably others too. I will say that the disappearance of the middle class in every aspect of human life — from culture to wages to discourse to media to religion to god knows what else — is a serious problem. I will say that while I don’t know how much climate change is truly irreversible or untenable, I also think it’s stupid not to understand our impact on this planet. I will say that the industrial revolution started a chain of events that we’re just now dealing with, and that we may not actually be able to stop.
That’s one of the topics I’ve been considering at length over the course of this year: progress. It’s not something we control, even if we contribute directly to its advance. It’s not that I want us all to just stop. There’s no reason any generation should just up and say, “Well, our parents took it as far as it can go, so we might as well just stick with what we’ve got.” But I do think we should consider it from time to time.
Think about the bomb. That’s pretty much it when it comes to destruction, save someone coming up with plans for a working Death Star. We took that too far, and look what happened. Luckily, no one seems to have decided to try that again, but you never know. Everyone should watch War Games, really. The only way to win global thermonuclear war is not to play.
While the consequences for the human race aren’t as instantly catastrophic with some of our other, current problems, I’m of the mind that they have the potential to be just as damning. The environment, for all we know, is teetering on the edge of destruction. At the very least, we are soon about to enter a new age of disparity. Is that the right word? Anti-prosperity is what i’m trying to say. Hardship. Drought. Famine. Extreme temperatures. Terrible storms. Rising water levels. The world — not the metaphysical concept, mind you, but the actual, literal earth — that my niece will be born into will not be the one that she knows by the time she’s my age. And while it’s not my kid that I’m worrying about, I have to say, this freaks me out.
The only thing keeping me sane is the thought that generations before me, going back thousands of years, probably thought the exact same thing. I’m sure it’s part of aging. I’m sure it’s the reason we all get more conservative as we get older. The world we knew evolves into something that’s unfamiliar and sometimes scary. And so we rebel by hiding, or we fight back by telling all these whipper-snappers that they’re doing it wrong. But it was us who screwed it all up in the first place.
The problem with progress is that you can’t go back. You can’t get to the end and stop. There is no end. So you keep pushing forward. New technology, new social norms, new ways to “make life easier”. All of these things have great potential. We live longer. We (sort of) know more about our bodies, about the earth, about the universe. But where does it get us? Having a computer in my hand that makes phone calls and takes pictures and connects to this thing we call — with a capital I, whether I like it or not — the Internet is amazing and wonderful, but is it really necessary? Do I really need to be staring into a tiny screen all day, looking for answers that may not be there?
I can’t answer these questions. I’m not sure anyone can. I can only say that I’m thinking about them. All the time.
Originally posted 8.1.2014 on Tumblr. The more time passes, the more I think about these words.