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.
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.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020