Here’s a set piece, so to speak, written for the newspapers. The title refers to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, a fashionable book in my college years, and is a pun suggested by my friend, Fayette Hickox. It was about the coming drastic changes wrought by the technological advances of the 60s, and had an apocalyptic quality to it. However, it seemed to me alarmist—everything was “special”—which, of course, results in nothing being special.
The future is a bit inscrutable. If we look at it up close, it has a way of becoming the present, and whizzing right past us like a kid on a skateboard.
Standing back, trying to get a broader view, we seem to be staring at a blank slate. And a very large blank slate the future is, stretching into infinity in silence. It doesn’t give up its secrets, nor invite us in. We can’t even get on the guest list. The future is like Greta Garbo, telling us, in effect, “I vant to be alone”.
The past is another matter. If the future is Garbo, the past is Britney Spears. Scenes from history dangle before us vividly, like baubles on a charm bracelet.
(Garbo—now she was special. She didn’t seduce or even radiate so much as propagate light with a beauty more dazzling than the sun. We sat in the movie theaters and grew the fungal plants that inhabit the souls of movie audiences.)
Archaic scenes unfold before us as if projected by a magic lantern. Over here the pyramids, currently under construction; knights, in shining armor, prepare to joust; Columbus sailing the ocean blue; Marie Antoinette as a milkmaid; Saint Francis preaching to a congregation of animals; a caveman rubbing together sticks to create fire; a Chinese Empress with her coterie of eunuchs. The past is an endless spectacle; the future doesn’t offer so much as a postcard.
Such visions of the future we can conjure are a pastiche of Jules Verne, Brave New World, “Bladerunner” and the Jetsons—picturesque but scarcely a roadmap of the not-yet. It seems that we should be able to think our way into the future. After all, what’s the difference between the past and the future, other than this moment? “It’s an odd sort of memory that only looks backward,” says Lewis Carroll’s Alice.
The poor visibility afforded by the future is no barrier to the prophets among us. Using a set of tools that includes stars, birds’ entrails, dreams, crystal balls, tea leaves and divine confidences, these seers have a backstage pass into the sanctum of the future. They turn the question mark of the future into a gaudy chorus line of exclamation marks!!!
Prophets of today foresee a grim tomorrow. Their visions are anything but paradisiacal. They see the future not as a promising beginning but an ignoble end. Dark, apocalyptic visions have never had it so good. As at a cosmic buffet, you can select the end of the world that is most to your taste. However, to bring out its full flavor, sprinkle with a grain of salt.
Today’s apocalyse menu includes a meteorite obliterating the planet, nuclear disaster, holy war, total economic collapse, global warming and the Rapture.
The psychics, preachers and gurus who make these prognostications always find a ready flock of believers, their bags packed and ready for doomsday.
One can see the appeal for the Doomsday Believers. With a single stroke you can bundle all of life’s perils and uncertainties into a single oblivious package. Call it “doubt consolidation”:
The flipside of the Apocalypse is … Paradise. In this case, the future is immortality—an “everlasting” garden where no one hungers. Whether Arcadia, Elysium, Utopia or Eden, paradises are invariably portrayed as vegetable gardens and pastures filled with game. Apocalypses are primarily famines. Get food right, and you’ve got at least “Paradise and Lunch”, as Ry Cooder nicely puts it.
Have no fear, dear readers, these apocalyptic visions too shall pass. Armageddons come and go. Meanwhile, you can find us in the paradise that is our garden.
The end of the world has a bright future. I think I see it growing now.