Reflections on what the future was meant to be...
For a long time, EARTH AD 2000 had long hung above us, beckoning like some distant, glowing road sign.
Generation after generation has used it to focus their dreams, hopes and fears, predicting madness and utopia in a myriad of prophecies, predictions which usually tell us more about the people that predicted them than about the future itself.
However the millennium was envisioned and created in bygone eras says loads about our long road through Modern Western history, both from the religious beliefs and secular wishes of our forebearers, all basically reaffirming the refrain that "you will see it when you believe it."
And how did we came to be where we are today; on a rapidly overpopulated, environmentally precarious ball of rock and water, hurtling through the cosmos, where a so-called billionaire TV presenter with bad hair and an even worse grasp of reality sits atop the controls to the world's largest stockpile?
Unlike Asiatic and Middle Eastern religions, the cults of Christianity envisioned history not as a series of endless cycles turning like a wheel in time, but as a progression to God's head; the state of perfect being; the end goal of it all.
The primary significance of the year 2000 evolved out of mystic prophecies about Christ's Second Coming, in which early Christian scholars predicted human history ending after a 6,000 year period. During this span every thousand years corresponds to one day of divine creation, not counting rest breaks.
They (and many others still today) believed that 2,000 years passed between the creation of Adam and Abraham, with another 2,000 year span between Abraham and Jesus, and 2,000 more years following the Christian era in which Jesus would return to reign in glory for 1,000 years-hence the significance of the millennium.
Over the centuries these calculations were maintained by those sects who felt it was their duty to preserve the ancient knowledge. Back then, before Swatch Internet Time, the average person had a pretty limited concept of time; the future was tomorrow morning, the harvest time or the coming harsh winter and death's inevitabile call. The more distant future belonged to the field of religion and the guys in hooded robes.
Today's concept of the future didn't come around 'til the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Age of Exploration, when international agreements gradually brought unification to the calendar and the proliferation of watches and clocks for the needs of science and commerce to anticipate things, whether chemical reactions or the expiration of contracts.
Basically time was invented so we wouldn't have to do everything at once (and space, so we wouldn't have to do it all in the same place).
But superstitious visions of the future mixed well with the new fields of science as Nostradamus showed us all. Michel de Nostradame - who later latinized his name to Nostradamus - was born in 1503 in St. Remy de Provence, France.
His family was Jewish but converted to Christianity, and the young Michel was brought up as a Catholic. Being a brilliant student, Michel learned classical languages, mathematics, and astrology from his grandfather. Later he decided to pursue medicine and enrolled at the University of Montpellier.
As a skilled physician, he became famous for his amazing success in treating victims of a deadly plague. As a seeker of knowledge he studied both scientific Copernican astronomy and astrology, eventually focusing on the occult.
In 1547, Nostradamus settled in the small town of Salon where he began to compose prophecies, drawing on his accumulated knowledge and books on astrology and magic.
In 1555, Nostradamus published the first of ten books, all entitled Centuries. Each volume contained 100 predictions written in four line verses known as quatrains. He wrote in his native French but to protect himself from the superstitious witch hunters of the day, and confused the verse with Latin, Greek, and even anagrams.
In one obscure quatrain, he prophesied that:
Out of the country of Greater Arabia
Shall be born a strong master of Mohammed...
He will enter Europe wearing a blue turban.
He will be the terror of mankind.
Never more horror.
Here, Nostradamus says that a man from Greater Arabia will lead his forces on an invasion through Europe. This invasion will start a third world war that will be far worse than all the other wars put together.
In one quatrain Nostradamus gives us an exact date in which the war will be well under way. Could this be from the Caucasus, or Syria?
In the year 1999 and seven months
From the sky will come the great King of Terror.
He will bring back to life the King of the Mongols;
Before and after war reigns.
No one's sure what that's supposed to mean, but many wanna-be prophets have used those lines to predict all sorts of disasters, from global warming to nuclear annihilation, to the end of life on Earth itself. Sadly this just shows that a couple of centuries of good ol' fashioned science hasn't replaced people's desire for mystical clues to the future.
Another fine gentleman, Sir Thomas More, was a contemporary of Nostradamus whose vision of the future was as a vision of a better society, a Utopia free of the ever-present world evils.
But as always, Utopian dreams of new and improved ways of doing things invariably rely on expectations of tomorrow. These beliefs were especially true during the 18th century's Age of Reason and the belief in the perfectibility of human nature and the unstoppable inevitability of progress.
Back then revolution and gunsmoke was in the air, and revolution is a violent form of self-fulfilling prophecy as we've learned well a century or two later. That's why advocating it is punishable by death in many modern democracies.
One manifestation of this unfolded in a stage performance entitled The Year 2000, written by Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne in 1789. Nicolas was a prolific author and tinkerer of the occult who inhabited the shadowy world of salon writers, philosophers and peddlers of pornographic tracks.
In the years before, he wrote sheets and sheets of grand and idealistic suggestions to the Estates General, ideas of legal and constitutional reforms, including a proto-welfare state with retirement funds, workers' insurance, free health care and free education, which, quite frankly, would make him a perfect candidate in the upcoming US elections.
His performance centered around a conceptual world, where marriage has been stripped of the trappings of commercialism and religion and couples are appointed by a council of community elders on the basis of merit, business, social, or otherwise.
The couples were to be kept apart for a couple of years to ensure their passion grows, and all of society, ruled by a benevolent hereditary leader who is perfectly just, and just he must be for all lawyers have been eliminated, who declares, "In the year 2000, virtue never goes unrewarded!"
Fast-forward to the 19th century and mankind's vision of the future becomes one ruled by the machine, with grinding gears and bellowing smoke and the power of the electric arc. This is the world that so captivated Jules Verne, who was the first major prophet of a technological future. Jules was born a short while after the French Revolution ended and died in 1905.
An upper-class stockbroker with a fascination for science, he wrote in his old age that he had been present at the birth of railroads, trams, the electric light, the telegraph, the telephone and the phonograph, not to mention postage stamps and detachable collars. And that's just a 100 years ago!
As a writer, Verne always tried to stay true to what he considered scientifically feasible. Aside from his major novels (Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth), he wrote about the year 2000 in a book called An Ideal City. In this story are many wonderful gadgets and mechanical inventions: self-cleaning streets, live music broadcast around the world by wires, babies fed milk from steam-powered breast-feeding machines.
More ideas, like women's gowns, having grown absurdly long, are supported on little wheels, in a rare bit of humor for this futurist, but most of the story's focus is on social engineering with a marriage tax to encourage marriage and other measures.
Social engineering, a prominent theme in turn of the century futurist's minds, increasingly looked forward to the year 2000. This was the year Edward Bellamy chose for his projection of the future America in 1888's Looking Backward, an immediate best seller, speaking to a country that was beset by strikes, battles between workers and police, and the robber barons and their rapidly growing industrial concerns.
Bellamy was revolted by the brutality of free market capitalism and the resultant misery that it left in its wake. Like a lot of left leaning writers of his time he believed in building a heaven, but here on earth.
Following this belief, which he labeled Nationalism, America in the year 2000 is essentially one huge mega-corporation. In his twisted perspective on economics, the lack of competition means all production is efficient and therefore, goods are cheaper. Since there is plenty for all, greed has no place and there is no need for money.
People are given credit cards with which they can get whatever they need from the central shopping centers. Each citizen must work in the workers' army, work that earns them all the same pay. Instead of cash remuneration, patriotism and their "passion for humanity" motivate people.
People select their mates on the basis of quality moral and physical attributes; humanity has been "purified." Simple details make life better for all in the collectivist hive: like when it rains the awnings are raised over the streets, replacing everyone's individual umbrella.
Looking Backward not only popularized old socialist ideals but eventually influenced their development and public appeal. Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist leader, publicly thanked Bellamy for bringing him "out of darkness into light... " and for "filling a despairing world with hope." But not everybody shared that particular hope; Bellamy's utopia was not only ignore human nature, but leaves little room for personal freedom.
Not long after the publication of Looking Backward, a quite different perspective of AD 2000 appeared; the Capitalist Rebuttal. Although free-market theory doesn't blend well with the utopian ideals of a regimented and regulated worker's paradise, in John Jacob Astor's A Journey In Other Worlds, Socialism has hopelessly ruined Europe, while the US, after swallowing Mexico, Canada and most of Central & South America, rules the world together with its ally and motherland, Great Britain.
A descendant of one of America's founding fathers, Astor the playboy had a dark and serious side. Fascinated by science from an early age, he filled his hours tinkering in machine shops, even filing patents for his inventions, like the marine turbine.
His book is populated with some of his fantasy inventions, like steam boilers powered by solar power and electricity generated by the tides, which power everything, even the battery-powered airplanes the congest the skyways.
Central to the story is the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company, which plans to reposition the globe so that the Earth's climate becomes a never-ending spring ("Polar bears will soon have to use artificial ice"). In Astor's vision, "...this period - AD 2000 - is by far the most wonderful the world has as yet seen. "
The problem; the world has grown too small, which is why the book's heroes take off for Jupiter in a spaceship equipped with booster rockets.
"The future glory of the human race, lies in at last exploring the solar system," concludes Astor, a lover of huge powerful ships and technical progress who ironically went to his watery grave on the Titanic.
Alongside this optimism, the Socialist critique of society and their troublemaking grew more widespread, contributing to darker visions of the future world. 1903's A Round Trip to the Year 2,000 by W. W. Cook, told about a world where robots known as "muglugs" take all the human's jobs, sending them to live out a pitiful existence roaming the Midwestern plains (a vision that brought little cheer to the chambers of commerce of the heartland).
This is the triumph of a capitalism in which the "Air Trust" sells the very air people breath and the "Sun Trust" forces the public to pay for every minute of sweet sunshine.
The War to End all Wars, WWI, with machines spitting death and no hope, further eroded man's view of things to come. In 1927 German filmmaker Fritz Lang released Metropolis the idea for which came to him when he first saw the glaring lights and tall buildings of Manhattan as he entered the harbor. (This film was one of Hitler's faves.)
Taking place in the year 2000, Metropolis shows plutocrats living in blissful pleasure while workers slaved away underground. Eventually a massive rebellion nets them freedom.
You can watch it in full here:
This storyline reflects H.G. Wells' 1895 mad journey, The Time Machine (which you absolutely must see in the Donald Sutherland/ Malcolm McDowell's movie version). In The Time Machine, mutants called Morlocks live underground emerging only to harvest the humans who live above them ignorantly in an Eden like garden.
Soon everyone was in on the game and in 1910 the illustrator Jean Marc Cote created a series of advertising cards depicting the life of the year 2000, a world of underwater croquet tournaments and flying cars, men being shaved by robots, battery-powered roller skates and much more.
Later, car battery manufacturer Hugo Gernsback launched the magazine Amazing Stories ("Extravagant Fiction Today-Cold Fact Tomorrow"). It was widely and shamelessly imitated.
A typical series in Famous Fantastic Mysteries was entitled Crimes of the Year 2000, and although the crimes were not especially novel, some of the crime-fighting devices were: tiny wrist-recorders, heli-pursuit cars, and bloodhound sniffing machines that identified a perpetrator's odor.
This view of the millennium was dominated by gadgetry, machines that would make The California Correctional Officers Association hard instantly. The good guys always won.
A much less entertaining phase of futurology began as the vision of the year 2K was taken over by the brain trusts, most famously the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Year 2000, established in 1966 and headed by the sociologist Daniel Bell and 42 leading thinkers in fields ranging from atomic science to Zen mysticism. One well known member, the genius Herman Kahn, published The Year 2000 alongside the commission's formal report, Toward the Year 2000.
Their speculations and extrapolations forecast many trends that have come true: economic decentralization, genetic engineering, the telecom revolution, the rise of the services industry, nuclear proliferation and threats to personal privacy. Optimistic about the economy, they predicted huge increases in personal income and the GNP (they forecast it'd be $3.6 trillion, falling short of today's figures by about half).
They even foresaw the rise in hedonism and Homer Simpson-like work ethics. But there were also the inevitable misjudgments and omissions, especially the lack of any reference to the dramatic change in the role of women in both politics and the workplace.
To correct that, a group of writers a few years later released the book Woman in the Year 2000. The contributions were cast in the form of fantasy and fiction but largely reflected familiar 70s feminist mantra.
One article tells the story of a girl born at midnight in the year 2000, and given the curious moniker Millenny. When she goes to school, she finds that girls are no longer discouraged from fighting and that boys are no longer looked down upon when they cry. On TV, cop-show violence and machismo are forbidden.
When and if Millenny wants to marry, she and her partner will negotiate a contract specifying their mutual expectations and responsibilities, a document to be renegotiated from time to time and always subject to cancellation.
Safe pharmaceutical contraceptives are available free at all banks and post offices. Other parts of the book predicted that homosexuality would be universally accepted and that conception would take place in laboratories with gestation in artificial wombs. Also, the gender of babies would be selected in advance.
This stuff doesn't even make the headlines anymore.
As gloom spread during the 70s, partly due to the energy crisis, growth was demonized. At the end of Jimmy Carter's reign, several federal agencies submitted the The global 2000 report to the President - entering the twenty-first century: A report.
It was strongly neo-Malthusian, predicting overpopulation and environmental degradation, shrinking resources and vast increases in poverty unless there were technological breakthroughs and co-ordinated international action.
The Carter Administration passed the report on to Ronald Reagan, who ignored it completely. Doomsayers could not have foreseen the Soviet Union's collapse, or the retreat of the welfare state in most parts of the world and the full impact on the global market of the resurgence of the American economy.
On the other hand, the technological forecasts were remarkably accurate, often to the smallest detail. Conversely the political forecasts; dreams of brotherhood vs. the nightmares of Big Brother have been far more off the mark.
Over many years the phrase "at the turn of the millennium" connotated a far off horizon. But that future is distant no more. Millennial predictions are rapidly spreading as soothsayers try to get them in before the ringing of the closing bell.
The Web; that digital jungle drum, reverberates the beats of end-time prophecies.
Much of the Apocalypse camp takes any random recent history, from the collapse of communism and the re-uniting of Germany to the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister and Microsoft's virus susceptible woes as a portent of the impending Doomsday or the flowering of some hippie paradise.
Countless non-religious visions also sway between doom and hope. Socialist Brotherhoods and Worker's Utopias are not so fashionable anymore, but the belief in free-market nirvanas still have to contend with the nightmare scenarios of Blade Runner cities and acid rain.
Prognosticators have always had it hard, mainly because rapid developments in science and technology constantly surpass mankind's imagination, leaving the most sensible predictions victim to the unforeseeable.
Anyways, everybody knows that the millennium was just another date on the calendar entirely, arbitrarily chosen just a few hundred years ago by some men living alone in candle-lit caverns.
But underneath it all is a deep human need, the desire to know that we are not just floating in time, but that we are going somewhere and that we can take a peek at that future.
It will be weird looking back at the year 2000, but now I can do it knowing The Sparks 1984 chart hit came so very true;"...someone's gonna eat a bowl of chow mien, I predict."