Jan 02, 2014

    What if this century begins in 2014?

    AS IF you didn't already have enough to be nervous about, here's something creepy to ponder as the new year opens.

    This isn't technological, social, political or even science-fictional. Rather, it's a bit of wholly unscientific, superstitious pattern recognition.

    The last two centuries (and possibly more) didn't "start" at their official point, the turning of a calendar from 00 to 01. That wasn't when they began in essence, nor when they first bent the arc of history.

    No. Each century effectively began in its 14th year.

    Think about it. The first decade of the 20th century was filled with a kind of can-do optimism that was never seen again - not after the horrific events of 1914 shattered any vision that a new and better age would arrive without pain. Yet, until almost the start of World War I, 19th-century progress seemed unstoppable and ever-accelerating.

    Consider the world of 1913, when regular middle-class folk in the United States, Britain, France, Germany and so on were acquiring unexpected wonders: clothes-washing machines, gas stoves, gas and then electric lighting, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, vaccinations, telephones and motor cars.

    Science was pouring forth what seemed unalloyed goodness. New dyes and industrial textile methods doubled a working family's access to fresh clothes. Nations were banning child labour and providing free schooling. Astronomers discovered what galaxies were. Physicists were pushing science to new frontiers.

    Think our era is similarly fast-changing? Compare the kitchen of today with one in 1950. Sure, everything is shinier, smarter. Still, a person from 1950 could use our apparatus with fluid familiarity. But the drudgery-saddled housewife of 1880 would blink in bedazzlement at what her daughter used in 1913.

    Yes, all of those techno-advances continued after World War I. Social changes, such as women getting the vote, were harbingers of more to come. But after 1914, the naivete was gone.

    People realised that the 20th century would be one of harsh struggle accompanying every step of advancement. And, along the way to hard-won better times, the age would spiral downward first, into the deepest pit that humanity knew, before our parents (or grandparents) clawed their way out of the nadir of 1944 - the focal year of a century that truly began in 1914.

    That's just one data point. Is there another? Look at 1814, the beginning of the Congress of Vienna and the so-called Concert of Europe that made possible the continent's longest extended period of overall peace, as the great powers turned from fighting bloody wars to perfecting their colonial empires. Those two years - 1814 and 1914 - each marked a dramatic shift in tone and theme (in the West, that is), so much so that they represented the real beginnings of the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Suppose the pattern holds - and remember this is just a thought experiment - what might it mean about the true 21st century?

    Consider the pervading doom and gloom we see around us, right now. Post-apocalyptic tales and dystopias fill our fiction and films, especially the Young Adult genre, where today's teens seem terminally allergic to stories containing hope. How very 60s. And 70s. And so on.

    There was a similar sense of apocalypse in 1813 Europe, but at least there were good reasons, after decades of ferocious struggle that seemed poised to last forever.

    What excuse do we have, in a time when per-capita violence has been plummeting for decades? When the fraction of kids - worldwide - who are well-fed and in school is higher than ever?

    Sure, the planet faces dire problems. But the things keeping us from addressing pollution, oppression, climate change and all of that are political inanities.

    Indeed, the only real obstruction we seem to face is a dullard-sickness of attitude.

    Hence the question: Is it possible that a new theme for our 21st century requires only that we snap out of our present funk?

    We can still choose our own fate. We could choose to become problem-solvers, in part, because (let's imagine) someone in 2014 discovers a simple, cheap and safe IQ-boosting pill.

    Or politicians decide to get over their self-serving snits and resume the adult craft of negotiation.

    Or some brave director releases an inspiring film that astounds people with an unexpected idea called hope.

    Or else go ahead and wallow in the obvious notion that 2014 will see a violent ruction of its own. A phase transition into a century whose theme we'll all regret.

    Or we'll see a continuing retreat from confident civilisation, a turning away from the Enlightenment Dream, relapsing into fearful obeisance to a leader, or New Lords, or some simplistic ideal.

    That, too, could take place. In which case, please don't give me any prediction points. All I did was spot a pattern. I don't want respect from a people who would allow something like that to happen.


    The writer is a scientist, futurist and author whose novels include The Postman and, most recently, Existence.