Our 22nd Century Mental Block

January 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Maybe it’s all the descriptions of science fiction, especially of utopian or dystopian inclination, that I’ve been reading at work lately.  Or maybe it’s the turn of another year to another futuristic number (2013, for pete’s sake!).  Whatever the cause, it’s just occurred to me recently to wonder:

Why are we not talking about the 22nd century the way that people from the fin de siecle forward (and even before) have talked about, prepared for, fetishized, longed for our 21st century?  Why have we never done so?  (I mean “we” in the broadest sense: humans, though of course I filter primarily through my Western lenses. I think it applies broadly.)

Wondering that has led me to hypothesize.  My hypothesis is that we aren’t thinking about, writing about, and planning for the 22nd century to the same extent that we did for the 21st because, deep down, on a kind of Jungian global subconscious level, we don’t think we’re going to make it that far, as a species.  Partly this is a matter of the narratives of progress and improvement and various ideologies of purity (racial, governmental, sexual, etc.) that drove so much utopian and dystopian thinking in the past 150 or so years having been dismantled and disproven.  And partly I think that numerology does have something to do with it: those 2000s always seemed so sexy as numbers.

But really, aren’t we also at a time in world history that seems deeply short-sighted, deeply unable to look more than a generation ahead?  The space program is an underfunded shell.  We’re still concerned about the price of gas.  We’re more bogged down in sectarian and political conflict than ever.  The ice is melting. Emblematic of all of this is the tired, tired gag of wondering why we don’t have the flying cars we were promised by 1999, or 2001, or 2010, or whatever date.  The tiredness is what’s emblematic: we’ve been making this joke for decades because our reality has outstripped our dreams.  We don’t believe anymore.

I’m fascinated by this idea that we’ve reached a kind of collective block on visions of the future (though of course it’s not complete, just highly noticeable).  It also seems really terrifying.  Every fictional depiction of the far future that I can think of is post-apocalyptic, and many imply that that apocalypse takes place in this century or the next.

Doesn’t it seem so much harder to look 87 years into the future and imagine anything encouraging?  Doesn’t the 22nd century seem like an impossible dream?  Wouldn’t a utopian thinker from Brazil, or China, or wherever — someone with a convincing vision that’s not utterly bleak — be a godsend?

Or am I just out of touch with all of the folks who are busy building the 22nd century’s castles in the sky?  Are these conversations taking place, convincingly?

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