Is 2020 the future of the future?

The year 2020 is upon us. It seems incredible that it’s 20 years since the turn of the millennium – a socially-defined key date in western society where the predominant beliefs were always millenarian, although we have to accept that a ‘millennium’ was sometimes figured to be other than a thousand years, hence the social panics back in the early 1660s. You know, 1666 wasn’t far off… But I digress.

It’s also twenty years since the ‘year 2000 bug’ was supposed to destroy the banking system and lose everybody’s money – a fate that was avoided only because of some very hard work ahead of time by computer programmers.

Photo I took on 3 January of haze across the foreshore in Napier, New Zealand, from Australian bush fires burning some 2000 or more kilometres distant.

The larger economic problem as 1999 drew to a close was less the loss of individual bank deposits as the fact that undefined fears over the ‘Y2K bug’ also spooked ‘The Markets’. This was the system where money, itself, was bought and sold as a commodity. The fact that those who bought and sold the money behaved like reef-fish starting at shadows – panicking at the slightest whiff of a rumour – underscored the fragility of the whole concept. It relied not on anything real, but on the way humans are capable of imagining complex systems, and then mistaking them for a robust reality. The undefined fear of the ‘Y2K bug’, with its unknown potential to destroy the whole gossamer-fragile ‘money markets’ edifice, was tailor-made to throw ‘thuh Markits’ into more of a tailspin than their usual state of irrational panic. (This system is still with us today, incidentally, and I still don’t know why ‘Market!’ isn’t used as a term of general approval, just as ‘Capital!’ was in the nineteenth century.)

But in any case, the year 2000 was always viewed as a major date. It certainly was for science fiction – a pivot-point where the present ended and the future began. And now we’re in 2020. Way back when – around 1972, I think – Hannah-Barbera produced a cartoon with the impressive title ‘Sealab 2020’, which thanks to that hard-stop millennium date really sounded more like the future of the future. Now we’re there. And it’s a very different future from anything envisaged 50 years ago.

Who’d have foreseen the break-down of the western social consensus into what amounts to ideological tribalism, divisions ultimately produced by the way neo-liberalism disempowered the poor in the 1990s particularly – but now fostered by social media. The rich have been able to exploit these divisions in order to get the poor – those who feel disempowered by change such as migratory patterns – to vote for them and thus keep the neo-liberal system going. Extraordinary, really. Who’d have foreseen the transfer of wealth from the poor to a very few ultra-rich – which process is one of the causes of the economic issues today – and so on?

Of course the 1960s and 1970s had their own problems, flowing from their own immediate past – a generational rejection of the world built by the two generations who fought the World Wars, fuelled by fear of nuclear armageddon from the Cold War. But there still remained a sense of hope in the way we saw the future which seems missing now. The classic, to me, remains Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, developed and made during 1964-68. One of the themes was the potential for technology to dehumanise us. But another was the way technology would continue to rise without limit. Back in the 1960s, on the back of Apollo, a future just 30-odd years ahead filled with atomic spaceships, orbiting hotels and massive underground moon-bases was plausible.

Today we’re two decades past the ‘future’ of 2001; and none of it has come to pass. Instead we have a world dominated by mega-corporates whose reach extends into everyday homes through ‘always-on smart devices’ that monitor our conversations. We have multiple major nations riven by such deep ideological factions that I fear for their long-term futures. We have a social media where discussion, often, seems to descend into abuse and slanging matches. And we’re consuming and polluting as if there is no tomorrow.

I think it’s unlikely 2020 will be a crunch year of itself in a general sense, but unless something is done to halt the current trajectory it won’t be long before western civilisation (aka ‘world civilisation’, these days) drops to its knees. I suspect the decisive factor will be the ideological issues currently tearing us all apart, rather than the fact that what we’re doing to the environment – all buoyed by ‘big business’ and ‘Thuh Markit’ – makes better sense if we assume it is deliberately intended to damage the planet.

It isn’t, of course; why attribute to planning and forethought that which can be adequately explained by selfishness and greed?

The net outcome, to me, is that the truth of the human condition – always buried under a façade of behaviours required by civilised society – has begun to emerge. And it is very ugly. It is also self-destructive, and I fear that humanity – as a collective planet-spanning species – lacks the ability to reverse course. Certainly that can’t happen while people foster hate for each other at every level – religious, ideological, political and personal – as revealed in the cess-pits of social media. There are exceptions, of course – and most welcome they are too. But these are, I think, drowned amidst the morass.

This is definitely not the 2020 I envisaged as a kid.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020


26 thoughts on “Is 2020 the future of the future?

  1. Racism, Radicalism and all the other negative ‘isms’ have probably been with humans since we stopped climbing trees, lost most of our body hair and walked on two legs. However, these ‘isms’ have been magnified by uncontrolled (and probably uncontrollable) social media, plus, the attitude of religious and government leaders coming to power in the last few years.
    I fear it’s approaching ‘culling time‘ for our species (preferably before we completely wreck the planet and chances of its other inhabitants).
    Sorry to be so negative, but I’m getting too old to believe in patience and long-suffering any more.

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    1. I agree – all that we’re seeing now in social media is a micro-cosm of the human condition which, of course, has been with us all along. The ‘them and us’ attitude almost certainly originated as an evolutionary survival strategy – Robin Dunbar’s work suggests that the optimal community size for humans is a kin-related band of around 150 (classic hunter-gatherer, in other words… or English village, etc…) Beyond that, other mechanisms come into play.

      Mix into that the way people typically validate their self-worth via zero-sum status games and/or ideological certainties, and the scene is set for today’s fragmentation, in which social media has become ubiquitous. Not only that, but it seems to me that the nature of social media – the short messaging, particularly – amplifies the polemic. There is no nuance, and that in turn feeds the fires of argument and fragmentation. The worst of it is that humanity today, thanks to our technology, should be better placed than ever to ensure that all of us have a better quality of life than at any time in history, including achieving that utopian dream of peace. But, I fear, human nature stands against it, and – as you point out – will defeat us in the end. As I write this, there’s every chance of an actual war breaking out in the Middle East. Sigh…

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  2. Tribalism seems to be rearing itself up big time. Nationalism and all that. Particularly in America and England, the latter where I grace. What’s going on here is deeply disturbing me.

    And in America the propaganda. A lot of the right actively think liberal values tie in with the far right. I’m constantly seeing people online happily claiming the KKK are left wing. It’s confounding.

    Makes me take delight in flat Earthers. At least they’re kind of harmless.

    I was despairing a bit about this recently, but then I remembered 10 million people did vote for Jeremy Corbyn here and his democratic socialist/green initiatives. But for Brexit he may well have won. So for me it was about remembering there are a lot of very good people out there and channelling that through a concerted effort.

    2020 is certainly crucial in America.

    There was a piece in The Guardian about the NZ PM and the magazine campaign. She’s certainly held in a strong light here. Whereas the Australian PM is not. The footage from Australia is appalling.

    … on the plus side The Irishman was pretty good. Escapism seems the way forward for me. I’m further embracing Buddhist values, primarily minamalism. The future sure needs it, in one’s posh British opinion.

    Oh and happy New Year by the way! Your blog always provides sanity amongst the madness.

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    1. Thanks – and happy new year to you too! Yeah, I agree, things seem to have gone rather crazy just now and maybe being a Flat Earther is the answer. On personal observation the Earth is obviously flat. I can prove it because just last week I stood on the shore of Lake Taupo, discussing with family whether the curvature of the Earth over its length stopped us seeing the far beach-line. Nobody could tell. It’s about 22 km, so even if the beach wasn’t below the horizon, it wouldn’t have been visible anyhow. I therefore conclude that, as we couldn’t see whether the beach was there or not, Earth must be flat. There’s a flaw in that logic somewhere, but I intend ignoring it.

      The Australian disaster is severe; I’m around 2000 km east of the fires in NZ and the skies here are smoky. I could actually smell the smoke the other day. What’s worse is the way their Prime Minister has been responding – I saw a video clip of him literally snubbing and walking away from someone begging him for help. Unbelievable.

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      1. If you Google Rivington (where I grew up, it’s in Lancashire near to Manchester) there were major moor fires there last year in June. Unprecedented levels. I mean it’s noting new, except nowhere near as extreme as in Australia.

        The stench carried across into Manchester and it was horrendous. But this is minor stuff. And this seems to be a right winger issues, “Oh, it’s just fires. They’ve always happened.” I look at the Australian images and it looks like Krakatoa has gone off.

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        1. Typo alert there. I hate to take politcal sides, but the denial element comes primarily from the right. To suit business ideals.

          Anyway, I have a book review tomorrow on William James Sidis. I presume you know about him? If not, well worth reading up on. I’ve delayed the post for ages. But he’s something of an obscure genius. His scientific theories are beyond me, but some of them seem to be in line with modern thinking.

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          1. Thanks for the heads-up (and have checked out your post!). It’s always intrigued me how the groupings usually considered ‘right wing’ are, so often, also those of assertion and faith in one ideology or another; whereas those usually considered ‘left’ present a more tolerant and reasoned approach. I think the compass is considerably more dimensional than a simple left-right swing; we can break that down into authoritarian and libertarian, and so forth. What puzzles me of late is how those who offer reason are being labelled as ‘intolerant’ and ‘unthinking’ by those defending ‘denialism’ and so forth. A case of projection, I suspect. But all of stifles honest discussion, and just now I think the world needs tolerance, reason and discussion more than ever.

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            1. Fully agree there. I’m certainly not changing my stance, at any rate. But hopefully we can get some much improved world leaders over the coming few years who can channel that. I still find it astonishing Trump has been President this long.

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        2. Australia is confronting a huge disaster just now – environmental and humanitarian. And I cannot quite fathom the head-burying behaviours of its government, including the minister responsible for civil defence who took the opportunity to go on holiday to Europe. Uh…. what? The fact that the smoke is visible in NZ (and still is, today as I write this) underscores the issue. We’ve had smoke from Aussie fires before, and indeed, fire is a constant companion over there; it’s an integral part of the ecosystem. But not like this.

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      2. Sorry about the smoke. And sorry for what I’m about to say, but that fuckwit who happens to be our PM is the sorriest excuse for a human being most of us have ever seen. If you get on Twitter, look for a tag called #auspol . There you’ll find repeated references to #scottyfrommarketing. That’s him. The advertising man who conned his way into the top job. I think he may go down in history as the most hated PM, ever. 100,000 people needing to be evacuated, and he rabbits on about the cricket…

        The strangest thing though, is that his lack of leadership is actually drawing /us/ together. I don’t know how long this sense of fellowship will last, but it gives me hope for the future.

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        1. I was shocked to see that video clip of Morrison snubbing a woman begging for help. No apparent sense of empathy and there are memes circulating already comparing Morrison’s cold-fish indifference with Jacinda Ardern’s genuinely heart-felt response to the Christchurch massacre – which was true leadership. Isn’t there a petition calling for her to also become PM of Australia?

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          1. Yes, the comparison to Jacinda Ardern’s empathy and compassion after the massacre could not be more stark. It also reminds me of an interview I saw when #ScottyFromMarketing lunged for Jacinda Ardern’s hand. She covered well, but it was obvious she was uncomfortable with the invasion of her personal space.
            Would we want her for our PM? Dear god, in a heart beat. Actually, could we have her from yesterday? I am not joking. My biggest fear at the moment is that scotty will be removed and replaced by someone potentially even worse – i.e. malicious /and/ smart. 😦

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            1. The only thing about Ardern is that domestically, her government hasn’t delivered anything significant yet. To an extent that’s a product of the damage done by the prior administration (especially dereliction of infrastructure spending). That will take more than one 3-year term to swing around. But it’s election year now and there is a high chance that Ardern’s government won’t be re-elected. There’s a growing feeling that she is all stardust and fairy lights – a great sense for media profile, but nothing of substance. It’s a pity, as Ardern’s message of empathy is an obvious one that needs taking on board, and given another couple of terms I think her government will make a very positive difference.

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              1. Damn, that’s so unfair. Progressive govts only ever get in when the so called ‘money managers’ have made a hash of things. Then, when the mess isn’t cleaned up fast enough, the same ‘money managers’ are voted back in. I truly hope New Zealand sees the damage the conservative govt has done here and learns from it. 😦

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    1. The human challenge will be breaking that spiral; what worries me is that things will, quite literally, probably ‘break’ before there is a consensus, and by then it might be too late. I don’t think the world will disappear or fail, but things will get ugly for a long time. The annoying part is that it is within humanity to have a far better world, if only we didn’t keep falling into the dark side of our nature.

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  3. We’ve always been selfish, and even mother love is an expression of /our/ need to protect /our/ child. I’ve simplified and paraphrased Kant, but I don’t think I’ve gotten it far wrong.

    But selfishness is not necessarily a ‘bad thing’ if it is harnessed towards the survival of the species. That’s what society, religion and culture are supposed to do – harness that motivation and channel it into behaviours that benefit society, and the species, as a whole. We are told to give up a little [of our individual wants and needs] in order to get safety and prosperity for all. That is the social contract we’re born into.

    When the disparity between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is negligible, the social contract works, and humanity does well. When it breaks down, as it is now, humanity spirals into conflict and violence.

    You’d think our leaders would understand how these destructive spirals work, but they don’t. Short term thinking for short term apes. 😦

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    1. I fear that humnanity is very poor at playing a long game. It will come back to bite us. Oh – it already has. I despair about current attitudes by many governments – reflecting prevailing mind-sets among big business and so forth. Looking back at the sweep of the twentieth century and its own origins in prior times, I can’t help thinking that it is generational and that in another couple of generations new attitudes and behaviours will predominate. The challenge is getting to that point when the current trajectory is so obviously going to break the civilisation we know and enjoy.

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      1. I agree, Matthew. We seem to function in a two steps forward, one step back fashion. We progress, but slowly. And as you say, the question is whether we’ll still be around to progress out of this hole that we’ve dug for ourselves. :/

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    1. I think we are in end-game territory for the neo-liberalism that flourished from the late 1970s. Two generations of it has not provided for all; it’s merely transferred wealth generated by many into the hands of a few, including new mega-corporates, who are now trying to keep it. The way that these behaviours are defended via social media – and, often, by those who have been dispossessed – underscores the strength of the ideology and of the way it has hijacked frameworks of thinking. But it can’t continue because the economic and financial systems it relies on are unstable by nature. The same system also has no mechanism for handling the environmental disasters that profit-only behaviour by corporates produces; and in any case, those dispossessed by the way the last couple of generations have played out will, eventually, object. It’s happened before. Humanity seems to have lost reason, moderation and tolerance. I fear for the future.

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      1. The paradox is that ‘ordinary people’, as I meet them in UK, US, Europe, all rub along pretty well together, until some contentious subject such as Brexit/Trump comes up. The divisive ideologies, including ‘neoliberalism’, are like viruses in the mind of humanity, which seem to appear at some point in most centuries. War is usually the result, but with modern weaponry that would be catastrophic, so we have to move to better dialogue, understanding and pragmatic leaders.

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  4. Really empathise with the sentiment that it wasn’t meant to be like this. It’s a great summary Matthew, especially for me the reference to Kubrick’s 2001. When it came out I was an extremely impressionable 11 years old, obsessed with the Apollo missions – it changed me forever. The future was exciting – we were heading for utopia. Now I am about to lose my European citizenship thanks to Brexit, and the US is invading Iraq again. My hope is still that something good will happen in a way we don’t expect. Happy new year to all!

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    1. I was a huge space-fan in the 1960s, as a very young kid. And I miss that lost world of 2001! I didn’t see it until 1974 because I wasn’t old enough in 1968, but I remember Fred Ordway coming to the district where I was brought up – Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand – and my Dad making a particular point of taking me (aged about 7) to a talk Ordway gave on how he’d advised Kubrick.

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  5. There’s a lot to unpack here, Matthew. We seem to be at a critical moment in history. I live in the US and have never been glued to the news like I am now. It’s scary and I don’t buy into the idea that we should look the other way because the stock market is through the roof. I am very concerned about the environment. Denver has risen to critical pollutions rankings and the EPA has given corporations until 2021 to adhere to the regulations. I can’t believe how backwards we’ve become in environment issues. I hope the next ten years turn things around.

    Happy New Year!

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