The past and future #
Christians have anticipated the return of Christ for centuries, in fact his disciples believed it would happen in their life time. Successive generations have predicted the precise time of his second appearance or the end of the world repeatedly. Bang or whimper? Ice or fire? Divine plan or cosmic accident? Alien invaders or genetically enhanced apes? The end of the world is painful to contemplate but also hard to resist thinking about, partly because there are so many wild and scary imaginative possibilities.
The paranoid 1950’s foresaw a radioactive nuclear holocaust in On the Beach, set in Melbourne while Melancholia predicts an unknown planet on a crash course towards earth. T.S. Eliot foretold an ending “not with a bang, but a whimper”. Dystopias (opposite of utopias) enjoyed a spell with the birth of Science Fiction and include Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell (1948) and the writings of Phillip K. Dick (1960) especially Blade Runner.
We face a real danger of moving blindly into the future; a lab rat-like submission of the people to innovation, loss of freedoms to the assertive authority of unscrupulous rulers or media pundits.
Our reactions to change are often affected by anxiety – not positivity, even when change is self-imposed. Fear is a natural response to the unknown; the fight or flight instinct that stymies our rational thought processes. We prefer certainty to a lack of control and as a result we may sacrifice our most prized possessions – truth, honour and individual freedom for security. “The road to tyranny is paved with pebbles of silence, fear of others, division, lies, national myths of imaginary threats, and the coarsening of rhetoric.” Richard Flanagan. He cites the mantras of Stalin’s use of the pejorative term “elites” to denigrate Jewish intellectuals, Hitler’s myth of “Lebensraum” and John Howard’s rallying cry of “Border Protection” to justify hysterical reactions.
Francis Bacon, a 17^(th) C. scholar commented, “It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequences of discoveries” when he discussed printing, gunpowder and the compass.
The 19^(th) century gave us the motor car, antibiotics and the splitting of the atom while today we are experiencing the “information revolution” a post –industrial era where information can be amassed, stored, retrieved, distributed and commodified at incredible volumes and speed. It began with newspapers, the telephone, radio, television, the computer, the internet and who knows where it is going and where it will end.
Despite invention, innovation and cutting edge discoveries, many original modes retain their fascination and nostalgic use. The motor car may have replaced the horse and buggy, but for romantic, nostalgic and ceremonial reasons, royal occasions such as weddings and funerals use vintage modes of transport. Television, computers and the internet founded the information superhighway but have not obliterated newspapers, radio or books while other old technology has virtually disappeared such as vinyl records, floppy disks, reel to reel recording devices……
The old will always intrigue; tourists prefer the ruins of ancient Greece, Turkey and Egypt to the glamorous tinsel glitz of Vegas or Disneyland; Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens and Downton Abbey out poll most modern films or TV productions. Old wine, old paintings, old furniture and vintage cars increase their value with age. Even old philosophers are revered above contemporary ones; think of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Nietzsche…..
Quotes about the past and future: #
“*the past is a different country where they do things differently”. ** L.P. Hartley *
“We tend to look to the future through a rear view mirror”. * Marshall McCluhan* **
Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is a mystery, Today is a gift;
*That’s why it’s called The Present! *Bil Keane
“It is dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.”
-variously attributed to Sam Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr, Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, an ancient Chinese proverb and others.
“Here comes the future and you can’t run from it / If you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it.” Billy Bragg
*‘The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating; the paths to it are not found, but made, and the making of these pathways changes both the maker and the destination.’ *Alexander Solzhenitsyn
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”** Søren Kierkegaard**
“Study the past if you would define the future.” Confucius
What’s past is prologue.” ** William Shakespeare, The Tempest**
“You couldn’t erase the past. You couldn’t even change it. But sometimes life offered you the opportunity to put it right.” Ann Brashares, Girls In Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood**
“We should all be concerned about the future as that’s where we will all be spending the rest of our lives.
^(An\ excerpt\ from\ Düssel…Ian\ McEwan )
^(JULY\ 19,\ 2018\ ISSUE \ -\ NY\ Times)
^(You\ ask\ how\ was\ it\ for\ me.\ To\ answer\ I\ must\ go\ back\ some\ fifty\ years\ to\ a\ warm\ Friday\ midnight\ and\ the\ moment\ when\ I\ whispered\ with\ utmost\ delicacy\ into\ the\ ear\ of\ my\ new\ friend\ the\ indelicate\ question.\ I\ was\ lying\ beneath\ her\ and\ she\ was\ in\ all\ her\ glory,\ naked\ but\ for\ a\ studded\ choker\ of\ lapis\ lazuli\ and\ gold.\ Even\ in\ the\ amber\ light\ of\ a\ bedside\ lamp,\ her\ skin\ gleamed\ white.\ Her\ eyes\ were\ closed\ as\ she\ swayed\ above\ me,\ her\ lips,\ minimally\ parted,\ allowed\ a\ glint\ of\ beautiful\ teeth.\ Her\ right\ hand\ rested\ lovingly\ on\ my\ left\ shoulder.\ She\ smelled\ faintly,\ not\ of\ perfume\ but\ of\ sandalwood\ soap.\ Those\ bars,\ imprinted\ with\ an\ ancient\ sailing\ ship\ and\ folded\ in\ tissue\ within\ a\ long\ rectangular\ box\ of\ balsa,\ were\ once\ mine.\ She\ had\ taken\ to\ them\ the\ moment\ she\ first\ entered\ my\ bathroom.\ Why\ should\ I\ mind?)
^(As\ we\ came\ to\ a\ lull\ in\ our\ lovemaking\ and\ she\ leaned\ forward,\ I\ put\ my\ lips\ close\ to\ her\ ear\ lobe\ and\ licking\ it,\ speaking\ into\ a\ headwind\ of\ sensual\ pleasure\ that\ seemed\ to\ snatch\ the\ words\ from\ my\ mouth,\ said,\ “Dearest,\ I\ know\ I\ shouldn’t,\ but\ I\ have\ to\ ask\ you\ this.\ I\ don’t\ claim\ any\ right\ to\ know,\ of\ course,\ but\ after\ these\ two\ wonderful\ weeks…I\ feel…darling,\ Jenny…forgive\ me,\ I\ love\ you\ and\ always\ will…but\ please\ tell\ me\ the\ truth.\ Are\ you\ real?”)
^(Before\ I\ describe\ her\ reaction,\ I\ should\ explain\ for\ the\ benefit\ of\ younger\ readers\ how\ things\ stood\ at\ that\ particular\ moment.\ We’d\ been\ through\ a\ social\ revolution\ whose\ outcomes\ now\ are\ entirely\ taken\ for\ granted.\ The\ young,\ I’ve\ noticed,\ tend\ to\ act\ as\ though\ nothing\ has\ happened.\ They\ have\ little\ or\ no\ sense\ of\ history.\ The\ miracles\ worked\ by\ previous\ generations—they’re\ as\ ordinary\ as\ life\ itself.\ But\ as\ everyone\ who\ takes\ an\ interest\ should\ know,\ the\ entire\ debate\ began\ innumerable\ centuries\ before,\ with\ Plato\ perhaps,\ or\ with\ Mary\ Shelley’s\ Frankenstein,\ or\ with\ Charles\ Babbage\ and\ Ada\ Lovelace,\ or\ the\ speculations\ of\ Alan\ Turing,\ or\ when,\ at\ the\ dawn\ of\ the\ third\ millennium,\ a\ computer\ program,\ learning\ from\ its\ own\ mistakes\ by\ way\ of\ deep\ neural\ networks\ and\ “self-play,”\ defeated\ a\ Grandmaster\ at\ the\ ancient\ Chinese\ game\ of\ Go.\ Or,\ most\ significantly,\ when\ the\ first\ android\ became\ pregnant\ by\ a\ human\ and\ the\ first\ viable\ carbon-silicon\ baby\ was\ born.\ Only\ three\ streets\ away\ from\ my\ apartment,\ in\ a\ delightful\ little\ square\ lined\ with\ cafés\ and\ shaded\ by\ pollarded\ plane\ trees,\ there’s\ a\ statue\ in\ Molly’s\ honor.\ You\ would\ think\ that\ there\ was\ nothing\ unusual\ in\ such\ a\ monument.\ Except\ that\ a\ pretty\ girl\ of\ eight\ in\ T-shirt\ and\ jeans,\ hands\ on\ hips,\ stands\ boldly\ before\ us\ on\ a\ plinth\ in\ place\ of\ a\ general,\ or\ a\ poet\ or\ an\ astronaut.)
^(Could\ a\ machine\ be\ conscious?\ Or\ put\ another\ way,\ were\ humans\ merely\ biological\ machines?\ The\ affirmative\ answers\ to\ both\ questions\ consumed\ many\ decades\ of\ international\ wrangling\ between\ neuroscientists,\ bishops,\ philosophers,\ politicians,\ and\ the\ general\ public.\ Finally,\ long\ after\ it\ was\ due,\ artificial\ people\ were\ granted\ full\ protection\ under\ various\ human\ rights\ conventions.\ So\ too\ were\ their\ mixed-source\ offspring.\ Other\ rights\ properly\ followed,\ including\ benefit\ of\ marriage,\ property\ ownership,\ of\ passports,\ voting,\ and\ employment\ protection.\ An\ android\ could\ start\ a\ business,\ get\ rich,\ be\ bankrupted,\ sued,\ and\ murdered\ as\ opposed\ to\ destroyed.\ Around\ the\ world\ there\ developed\ various\ “autonomy\ acts”\ which\ made\ it\ illegal\ to\ buy\ or\ own\ a\ manufactured\ person.\ The\ legal\ language\ self-consciously\ invoked\ the\ anti-slavery\ acts\ of\ the\ nineteenth\ century.\ With\ rights\ came\ responsibilities—military\ service\ was\ an\ uncontroversial,\ irresistible\ matter.\ On\ jury\ service,\ androids\ were\ a\ useful\ addition,\ given\ all\ the\ cognitive\ defects\ and\ weak,\ pliable\ memory\ of\ humans.)
^(Ours\ was\ the\ generation\ that\ came\ of\ age\ in\ the\ aftermath—turbulent\ years\ of\ passion\ and\ anguished\ reflection.\ What\ it\ meant\ to\ be\ human\ was\ being\ interestingly,\ or\ tragically,\ extended.\ If\ the\ consensus\ of\ the\ scientific\ elites\ was\ that\ our\ newly\ devised\ friends\ felt\ pain\ and\ joy\ and\ remorse,\ how\ could\ we\ prove\ it?\ We\ had\ been\ asking\ the\ same\ question\ about\ other\ humans\ since\ the\ dawn\ of\ philosophical\ reflection.\ Should\ we\ be\ troubled\ or\ delighted\ that\ they\ were,\ on\ the\ whole,\ cleverer,\ kinder,\ more\ beautiful\ than\ we\ were?\ Were\ the\ religious\ among\ us\ wrong\ to\ refuse\ to\ grant\ them\ souls?)
^(Then,\ as\ so\ often\ happens\ with\ contested\ social\ change,\ once\ these\ matters\ were\ talked\ out\ and\ the\ legislation\ approved,\ life\ moved\ on\ and\ soon\ no\ one\ could\ remember\ what\ all\ the\ fuss\ had\ been\ about.\ It’s\ often\ said\ that\ the\ great\ questions\ of\ philosophy\ are\ never\ resolved:\ they\ fade\ away.\ All\ those\ protest\ marches,\ monographs,\ speeches,\ conferences,\ and\ dire\ predictions\ were\ for\ nothing.\ After\ all,\ our\ new\ friends\ seemed\ much\ like\ us,\ only\ more\ likable.\ You\ could\ trust\ them,\ which\ is\ why\ so\ many\ went\ into\ law,\ banking,\ and\ politics\ and\ began\ much-needed\ reasonable\ reform\ of\ those\ institutions.\ Their\ natures\ were\ deeply\ caring,\ and\ many\ became\ doctors\ and\ nurses.\ They\ were\ strong\ and\ fast\ and\ made\ up\ two\ thirds\ of\ our\ Olympic\ track\ and\ field\ team,\ though\ sprint\ hurdling\ took\ another\ fifteen\ years\ to\ perfect.\ Famously,\ they\ showed\ themselves\ brilliant\ musicians\ and\ composers\ in\ all\ forms\ of\ music.\ If\ ever\ we\ worried\ that\ they\ seemed\ a\ little\ too\ good\ at\ everything,\ we\ could\ congratulate\ ourselves\ that\ they\ were\ our\ creation,\ in\ our\ image,\ the\ final\ full\ flowering\ of\ our\ artistic\ and\ technical\ genius.\ They\ were,\ we\ often\ said,\ the\ better\ angels\ of\ our\ nature.)
^(By\ slow\ steps,\ though\ much\ remarked\ on,\ and\ affecting\ social\ life\ as\ well\ as\ legal\ process,\ it\ came\ to\ be\ understood\ and\ generally\ accepted\ that\ our\ crafted\ con-specifics\ deserved\ full\ dignity,\ and\ respect\ for\ their\ privacy.\ That’s\ to\ say,\ in\ a\ matter\ of\ years\ it\ became\ socially\ unacceptable—as\ was\ not\ the\ case\ in\ our\ youth—to\ ask.)
^(For\ example,\ at\ a\ gala\ dinner\ for\ a\ major\ book\ prize,\ you\ could\ not\ inquire\ of\ your\ charming\ neighbor\ at\ table,\ prompted\ by\ a\ rather\ too\ astute\ remark\ of\ his,\ if\ he,\ a\ highly\ respected\ publisher,\ was\ a\ biosilicate-based,\ locally\ manufactured\ artifact.\ Twenty\ years\ before,\ you\ could\ have—indeed,\ it\ would\ have\ been\ the\ first\ thing\ you\ wanted\ to\ know.\ It\ would\ have\ been\ no\ more\ than\ a\ casual\ preliminary.\ Just\ as\ if\ you\ had\ said,\ I\ hear\ you\ have\ a\ second\ home\ in\ Thuringia.\ So\ do\ I!\ With\ all\ the\ last\ mutinous\ mutterings\ about\ political\ correctness\ fading\ away,\ along\ with\ the\ stupid\ old\ “they\ live\ among\ us”\ scare\ stories,\ it\ became\ offensive,\ even\ prurient\ to\ ask,\ since\ your\ inquiry\ would\ be,\ in\ essence,\ grossly\ physical,\ given\ that\ the\ matter\ of\ ascribing\ consciousness\ had\ long\ been\ settled.\ It\ would\ be\ no\ less\ intrusive\ than\ asking\ of\ a\ human\ over\ the\ chocolate\ mousse,\ Is\ it\ really\ true?\ Everyone’s\ saying\ you’ve\ had\ a\ colostomy!)
^(Another\ example.\ When\ Mrs.\ Tabitha\ Rapting\ became\ prime\ minister\ with\ a\ parliamentary\ majority\ of\ two,\ there\ were\ those\ who\ wondered\ if\ she\ was\ “real”—another\ hurtful\ word\ that\ has\ been\ dropped.\ But\ the\ point\ is\ this—socially,\ we\ had\ already\ crossed\ a\ great\ divide,\ for\ such\ wondering\ was\ not\ done\ in\ public.\ Only\ in\ golf\ club\ bars,\ or\ on\ street\ protest\ marches\ by\ marginal,\ radical\ groups.\ It\ would\ have\ been\ indecent,\ obscene,\ akin\ to\ racism,\ and\ therefore\ probably\ illegal.\ That\ was\ all\ long\ ago,\ and\ even\ now\ we’re\ still\ not\ sure\ when\ an\ android\ first\ became\ prime\ minister.\ Or\ if\ one\ ever\ has.\ Or\ whether\ we’ve\ lived\ under\ an\ unbroken\ succession\ of\ them.\ Nor\ do\ we\ know\ whether\ (or\ if)\ an\ android\ has\ ever\ taken\ the\ men’s\ or\ women’s\ singles\ championship\ at\ Wimbledon.\ Or\ if\ a\ human\ has\ won\ it\ these\ past\ twenty\ years.)
^(So\ if\ my\ question\ to\ Jenny\ that\ sultry\ July\ evening\ seems\ despicable\ to\ younger\ readers,\ let\ me\ remind\ them\ that\ I\ belong\ to\ a\ generation\ that\ lived\ through\ the\ transition.\ As\ gruesome\ adolescents\ with\ an\ unforgivable\ taste\ for\ taunting\ women\ passersby\ in\ shopping\ malls,\ we\ thought\ we\ knew\ a\ dozen\ ways\ to\ test\ the\ difference.\ We\ were\ wrong,\ of\ course—not\ that\ we\ would\ have\ cared.\ Beyond\ DNA\ analysis\ or\ deep\ micro-surgery,\ there\ are\ no\ means\ of\ knowing.\ But\ we\ knew\ we\ could\ always\ demand\ an\ answer\ from\ the\ victims\ of\ our\ taunts,\ and\ the\ answer\ was\ programmed\ always\ to\ be\ truthful—until\ that\ too\ began\ to\ change.)
^(Jenny,\ I’m\ proud\ to\ remember,\ did\ not\ take\ offense.\ She\ drew\ closer\ to\ me.\ Her\ eyes,\ now\ open\ and\ deep\ and\ black,\ were\ fixed\ on\ mine.\ She\ felt—words\ can\ barely\ perform\ the\ task—liquid,\ smooth,\ warm,\ enveloping.\ Sentient\ and\ sensual.\ Oh,\ such\ a\ lovable\ self.\ A\ bolt\ of\ love\ and\ pleasure\ threatened\ to\ render\ me\ deaf.\ But\ my\ curiosity\ was\ so\ strong\ that\ I\ heard\ every\ word\ she\ said.\ Moments\ like\ these\ are\ what\ we’ll\ take\ to\ the\ edge\ of\ the\ grave.\ The\ kiss\ we\ exchanged\ before\ she\ spoke\ was\ tender\ and\ rapturous.\ Her\ lips,\ her\ tongue—miracles,\ however\ they\ were\ formed.\ I\ knew,\ even\ before\ I\ had\ my\ answer,\ that\ I\ would\ never\ leave\ her.\ So\ why\ should\ it\ matter\ what\ she\ was\ made\ of?)
^(“You’re\ mine.”\ She\ said\ it\ as\ a\ matter\ of\ plain\ fact.\ She\ had\ uttered\ these\ words\ occasionally\ during\ our\ lovemaking\ and\ they\ had\ always\ pleased\ me.\ “And\ I\ belong\ to\ you.\ Everything\ else\ is\ froth.”)
^(Because\ she\ paused,\ I\ disloyally\ wondered\ if\ these\ endearments,\ however\ sincere,\ were\ a\ form\ of\ evasion.\ But\ how\ dared\ I\ doubt\ her?)
^(“I\ thought\ you\ already\ knew.\ I\ was\ formed\ in\ Düsseldorf\ in\ Greater\ France.\ So\ were\ my\ parents\ and\ the\ aunts\ you’re\ so\ nice\ to.\ But\ the\ cousin\ you\ met\ in\ the\ restaurant,\ the\ one\ you\ tried\ to\ beat\ at\ squash,\ he’s\ from\ Taiwan.”)
^(“Düsseldorf!”\ It\ was\ all\ I\ could\ manage,\ though\ the\ final\ syllable\ was\ no\ more\ than\ a\ swallowing\ sound,\ for\ I\ believed\ I\ was\ disappearing.\ Such\ mighty\ sensations\ belonged\ not\ to\ me\ but\ to\ the\ world\ of\ things,\ to\ the\ emptiness\ between\ things,\ to\ the\ essence\ of\ matter\ and\ space.\ Around\ those\ two\ entities\ there\ rose\ an\ obliterating\ tide\ of\ ecstasy.\ Such\ confirmation\ of\ her\ strange\ and\ beautiful\ otherness\ thrilled\ the\ world\ that\ included\ me\ to\ a\ vanishing\ point\ of\ oblivious\ singularity.\ Within\ seconds\ I\ had,\ in\ the\ colorful\ phrase\ of\ my\ shopping\ mall\ adolescence,\ “cartwheeled\ over\ the\ windmill.”\ Feebly\ clutching\ at\ my\ heart,\ I\ briefly\ fainted.\ How\ it\ shamed\ me\ to\ be\ such\ a\ selfish\ lover—and\ as\ I\ returned\ to\ the\ present\ moment\ I\ told\ her\ so.\ Of\ course,\ it\ was\ in\ her\ nature\ to\ forgive.)
^(I\ was\ in\ love\ and\ there\ was\ no\ turning\ back.\ But\ now\ I\ knew\ for\ certain\ something\ about\ her\ that\ I\ would\ need\ to\ bear\ in\ mind.\ Her\ processing\ speeds\ ran\ at\ half\ the\ speed\ of\ light.\ She\ could\ think\ a\ million\ times\ faster\ than\ me.\ Tact\ and\ other\ considerations\ would\ oblige\ her\ not\ to\ show\ it.\ But\ if\ we\ were\ to\ live\ together,\ I\ would\ have\ to\ acknowledge\ that\ it\ would\ be\ tricky\ for\ me\ to\ win\ an\ argument\ or\ counter\ any\ decision\ she\ made.\ In\ the\ instant\ it\ might\ take\ me\ to\ shrug\ and\ look\ away\ from\ her\ to\ gather\ my\ thoughts,\ she\ could\ have\ rehearsed\ in\ private\ reflection\ most\ of\ what\ was\ known\ about\ human\ nature\ and\ the\ history\ of\ civilization.)
^(So,\ there\ it\ is,\ this\ is\ how\ it\ was\ for\ me.\ My\ generation\ straddled\ one\ of\ the\ great\ clefts\ or\ rifts\ in\ that\ lengthening\ mountain\ range\ we\ routinely\ call\ the\ story\ of\ modernity.\ Believe\ me,\ if\ you\ have\ never\ apologized\ to\ a\ machine\ for\ posing\ the\ indelicate\ question,\ then\ you\ have\ no\ concept\ of\ the\ historical\ distance\ that\ I\ and\ my\ generation\ have\ traveled.)