David Bouchier: Looking Backwards

Dec 29, 2019

You may remember that twenty years ago, at this time in 1999, we were all full of anxiety about the coming 21st century. Prophets of doom eagerly fed the general sense of uneasiness with dire predictions. Terrorism, war, trouble in the Middle East, economic stagnation and political meltdown were all confidently predicted, and they all happened, as they always do, and here we are. Now those prophecies seem as inevitable and commonplace as death and taxes. The two big things that failed to happen were the end of the world and the obliteration of all computers in the famous Y2K crash. That last was the only one I was really looking forward to.

I’ve been looking back at some columns I wrote in 1999, when I was rash enough to make predictions about the coming century. My guesses have proved to be pretty accurate so far. I followed the five golden rules of prophecy: state the obvious, stick to the small stuff, be vague about the details, predict things that are certain to happen anyway, and assume that the future will be just like the present, only slightly worse. On the basis of these rules I dismissed the Y2K hysteria, the end of the world, and all the other catastrophic predictions as nonsense, and forecast that the characteristic neurosis of the 21st century would be Pantophobia – or fear of everything. Older people tend to be more anxious and fearful than young ones, and we are an aging population. That’s why things always seem to get worse, because we have more professional worriers.

In order to feel good about the future we need to pay more attention to the past. Philosophers in the 18th century confidently expected that the progress of knowledge would create a fully rational and utopian world society.

Science and technology have delivered a lifestyle better than anything the 18th century thinkers could have imagined. We live in an almost invisible cocoon of luxury, made up of a multitude of small things – plentiful food, clean water, heat, modern medicines, personal mobility, and an awful lot of personal freedom. We’ve come a long way, but not quite all the way to utopia. Utopia is a long-term project.

That is why it is reassuring to look back at the past to get some perspective, and why history and historical fiction are so enormously popular. I like to lose myself in narratives of the Roman Empire or the Napoleonic Wars, and part of the pleasure is that, when I put down my book and return to the present, there’s such an enormous feeling of relief. Well, at least I didn’t have to live back then. In the same way citizens of the future (if any) will look back on our own times and say: Well, at least I didn’t have to live back then. Our present century, with all its irrationality and chaos, will be our gift to posterity, their entertainment, and even their consolation. I hope that makes you feel better about 2020.

Happy New Year.

Copyright: David Bouchier