Sunday Night Journal — January 2, 2011
Here I am, writing on the second day of a year which would once have seemed impossibly far in the future to me, and which I would have expected to be a very different place, more “futuristic” in what is now itself an antique sense of that word. When I was a teenager reading science fiction in the early and middle 1960s, even Orwell’s 1984 seemed distant enough that one could imagine his vision coming to pass—that is, there still seemed time enough for those massive changes to occur. (Of course I was looking at the idea of “twenty years” through the eyes of one who had lived fewer years and could remember fewer still, so it seemed a far longer time to me than it does now.)
The science fiction writers, middle-aged men (and a few women) with a longer perspective, nevertheless still apparently saw the year 2000 as being far enough into the future to serve as a canvas on which all sorts of technological and social changes could be painted. Most famously, Arthur C. Clarke postulated a permanent moon base and easy airline-style travel to and from it, and saw these as marking the end of humanity’s childhood. Now we are ten years past that, and in the most fundamental ways our society has not really changed substantially. Technologically, there has been less development than expected in some areas—air and space travel—and more in others, mainly electronics, and specifically in digital electronics, which now allow us to hold in one hand more computing power than could be found in an entire floor of an early computer installation. (I’m particularly conscious of this because I entered the computing field just as the personal computer was moving out of the hands of hobbyists and into the hands of ordinary people, beginning the revolution which is still in progress.) Socially and politically, there have been many changes, some good—the end of legal racial segregation—and some bad—the terrible weakening of marriage, and its almost complete collapse in some segments of society. (I’m inclined to think the bad outweighs the good, but that’s another topic.)
But those changes have not produced a world that would be unrecognizable or disorienting to a person transported abruptly from 1965 to 2011. Some details would be startling—the mp3 player in place of the transistor radio, for instance—but the fundamental structures and mechanisms of society would be more or less the same. This is perhaps a bit surprising not only to those of us who remember the future imagined in the mid-20th century, but to another group with which I’ve also had something in common: the apocalyptics. I don’t mean those Christian groups who believe that the end of the world is very near, but others who believe that our industrial-democratic civilization will inevitably collapse in the fairly near future. You can find these all over the political spectrum, from environmentalists who believe that technologists are destroying the plant to technologists who believe environmentalists are destroying civilization. (For the record, I think both have a point.) And in the space of a year or two we went from having a large number of people saying that the apocalypse was not coming but actually in progress during the Bush administration, to an equally large (or at least equally loud) group saying the same about the Obama administration. (For the record, I think both have a point.)
The apocalyptics, too, have been around for a while—as long as the things they worry about. I remember some of this sort of thing from the 1960s, and quite a lot of it from the 1970s, when the term “survivalist” became familiar to us. And of course from 1945 until the end of the Soviet Union everyone, at least in the industrialized world, had a perfectly rational fear of a nuclear apocalypse.
Underlying much of this alarm, I think, is a sense that this can’t go on forever. The civilization we know is very new, in historical terms. For several thousand years, the basic circumstances of life had changed very little, and for much longer than that in societies that did not develop agriculture. But the industrial revolution turned things upside down in roughly a hundred years. In 1820 it was just getting under way; by 1920, it had made a new world. Most of what shapes this thing we call “the modern world” have been in place since 1920. The distance between societies with and without the telephone, for instance, is far greater than the distance between “hello central” telephony and the hand-held smartphone. If you pick any year after 1800 or so and look forward fifty years, you find a society very much changed, often by the introduction of some technology which enables man to do things never done before. This holds until roughly 1930, when the pace of fundamental technological change slows down: except for television and computers, all the major technological components of our contemporary society are there and in fairly widespread use (and radio performed much of the same function that television does today). The difference between, say, 1870 and 1920 is far greater than the difference between 1950 and 2000.
And similar observations apply in politics and economics. So are we entering a new equilibrium? Is this the point at which the future, a phrase which has for almost a hundred years now suggested a much different and much better world, signifies more or less a continuation of the present, as it did for thousands of years?
I’m no historian but I don’t know where one would look in history for another example of change of such simultaneous speed and scale, change that alters the fundamental conditions of life. The pace of change has been so rapid that it’s almost redundant to say the situation has been unstable. Any person who gives the matter much thought at all must recognize this, to feel that the instability continues, and to wonder if the speeding vehicle might not spin out of control at any time and end up overturned in a ditch, or smashed against a wall.
It seems very likely to me that present conditions—advanced technology, great material wealth for large numbers of people, rulers chosen by the people—will not last for more than fifty or a hundred years, and that they might come to an end in one of two different ways (apart from the Second Coming and the end of the world as we know it).
One: the complex technical, social, financial, and political machinery might break down, for reasons either external (e.g. the end of cheap energy) or internal (e.g. a collapse of morality and discipline rendering nations incapable of maintaining the institutions that make the system work). There is a very respectable body of Catholic opinion that actively desires this result, not as an unwilled catastrophe but as a decision, and envisions a return to agriculture and handicrafts. I’m very sympathetic to this movement, but have never quite been able to commit myself to it, because I don’t see how it can happen without great hardship. At any rate, it doesn’t require much imagination to envision something like this happening; from a simple common sense standpoint it seems more likely than not, and I suppose there are a hundred books published every year explaining that it must and will happen unless dramatic action is taken to prevent it.
Two: the complex technical, social, financial, and political machinery might succeed all too well in producing the society toward which it naturally tends, a society something like that foreseen in Brave New World, in which most of mankind is emptied as far as possible of all that is genuinely human and becomes a slave to pleasure and to those who control the availability of pleasure for purposes of their own. In this soft totalitarianism, the individual would surrender all other freedoms in favor of the freedom to seek the maximum personal pleasure, under the control and guardianship of the government and large corporations. This requires the weakening and suppression of the family and religion, and I admit I fail to see how it could come to pass and endure for more than a very short time. But it is certainly what some people want, though they would not describe it in the same terms I have, and they have made some progress toward it.
I used to be more alarmed by these possibilities than I am now, but pessimism has jaded me somewhat—pessimism, and the continual advance of the forces of disintegration which often seem unconquerable, because most people have already accepted them. I can still be amazed that we are taking seriously the logically absurd idea that a man can marry a man or a woman marry a woman, but I don’t think we are likely to stop it from assuming the force of law. The contradiction is to be removed by a redefinition of the word “marriage,” and no matter what is done with the word, reality will not change, and the union of husband and wife will always be something different from the association of “partners” (wretched clinical term). But it’s difficult to see what reason and persuasion and political activism can do in the face of such…I was about to say such madness, but it is the logical result of a process that has been under way for several generations, and not many people are willing to reconsider those old mistakes about sex and marriage and children.
Still, the feeling that this can’t go on is not necessarily correct. Perhaps it is at least possible that we can carry on enjoying the benefits of technological and social progress without either destroying them through folly or leaping into the abyss where souls die. If this can happen, it requires a repudiation of certain aspects of the Enlightenment and its offshoots: of utilitarianism, of the philosophical silence at the heart of classical liberalism, of everything that encourages the human person to see himself as the center of an ever-expanding sphere of personal liberation, and government as the guarantor of that expansion.
When I was a new convert, I read a three-volume history of the Church by Philip Hughes. The volumes were subtitled The World in Which the Church Was Founded, The Church and the World the Church Created, and The Revolt Against the Church: Aquinas to Luther. Since the time of Luther, the revolt and the arguments on which it was based have continued and advanced. The Church has not always been right on everything in these arguments; she was right on spiritual matters, certainly, but not always on questions of the management of worldly life. But the Church has learned, and now sees the strengths and weakness of the modern world more clearly than that world itself does. It remains to be seen whether the world can learn.