The Alternative Church
Imagining The Future
For the most part, people don't care about Time, what year it is, and where they fit in History. Most people consider it irrelevant, only useful to schedule an appointment. It seems like people have always been this way, and this is evidence of the artificiality of our calendar systems. During the Ice Age, one imagines people were concerned about seasonality, and obviously we have the left-overs of their desire to mark the Equinoxes and Solstices. But when we read ancient sources like the Romans, we see how complicated their calendar system was, as if it was something not important enough to rationalize. They had days called Kalends, Ides and Nones and counted backward and forward from them. Their years were referenced not sequentially as we do now, but rather to the reign of monarchial figures like an Emperor or Consul.
In addition, the ancients used the Olympiad, the four-year period between the ancient Olympics, believed to have begun in (what we call) 776 BCE. The ancient Olympics ended around 393 (during the 293rd Olympiad) and when they were revived in 1896, that corresponded to the old system’s 669th Olympiad. The 700th Olympiad began in 2020.
We nevertheless inherited their predictable mechanistic solar calendar and improved it over centuries, indicating an increasing instrumentalization of Time. The Ancients didn’t need a calendar that made sense, but we do, and have at least since the 19th Century Industrial Revolution. The Church brought us a straightforward chronological sequence measured from the Incarnation of Christ. Later, tick tock clocks borrowed the geometry of circles to structure the days into hours, minutes, and seconds. Audio-visual recorded culture in turn gives an aesthetic sense of decades within centuries.
Perhaps now is a great time for me to write about imagining the future, since it’s something I've been doing for about 35 years. At this point I’m either an expert or a connoisseur, and because we’re now apparently on the other side of The Plague of the 700th Olympiad, we have a new reason to imagine what is to come.
My interest in Time might go back to when (aged about 7 or 8) I noticed "time" shared the beginning letters with my own name “Timothy", and in the years which followed, I occasionally reflected on the uniqueness of individual days. For example, I was living through the only “May 6th 1985” that would ever exist.
In 1987 I began watching Star Trek the Next Generation, and was fascinated by the 24th Century world it depicted. There was a promotional magazine I picked up at the grocery store, and in the school library during a Grade 7 "reading period", I read an essay within it which described the 24th Century post scarcity society and its computers. Remarkably, years later when I found this essay and digitized it, I noticed the writer used the word "googolplex" to describe the Enterprise-D's computer memory, which before Google.com was the word for 1 with 100 zeroes.
I recall being envious when I read the relevant paragraph:
“Perhaps the biggest change on the Enterprise is the sophistication of its computer. It has access to the entire library of recorded human knowledge (probably a googolplex of megabytes) and can present any desired information almost instantly upon request.”
I didn’t realize then that I would grow up to use computers every day, mediated by a Googolplex which had access to the entire library of recorded human knowledge, available almost instantly upon request. Indeed, as I watched the rise of the Internet and the advancement of computers in the 1990s, I could perceive the underlying vision: to build the Enterprise computer. It made me excited to see that vision becoming reality. It’s also the reason I currently have three Google Home devices, so I can tell the room to turn on the lights.
In the late 1980s, Star Trek TNG was just another audio-visual science-fiction work depicting The Future. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was already twenty years old, and as the 1990s progressed, the approaching year 2000 was a vanishing point that s-f was squeezed both toward and through, satirized by Conan O'Brien's "In the Year 2000" skit.
As a milestone date it was used in policy documents like “Global strategy for Health for All by the year 2000” (1981). Past that date, the policy documents acquired “Vision 2020” titles, the pun on the eye-test inescapable. 2020 of course became a nightmare.
I was very self-conscious in the year 2000 that I was living at the beginning of a blank 100 year book and that I would get to see a fair chunk of it written into before I died, likely by 2075, at which point atmospheric carbon-dioxide will be approaching 1000ppm, a level at which human cognitive ability declines by 21%.People will actually get stupider through the century as their brains are cut off from the oxygen levels we evolved with.
In the summer of 2017, I was working for a corporation which moved offices from University Ave to a new building on King St East. As a brand new building, it had been built and designed using up-to-date principles, and so it struck me that I was looking at something that wouldn't be updated for at least ten years, and thus I was experiencing 'the typical office environment of the 2020s'. 2017 however, was the decade's Seventh Year, and I've noticed a pattern in the way we remember decades.
The remembered stereotype of a decade tends to average around what was happening in that decade's Seventh Year. When people remember The Sixties for example, the stereotypes were all there in 1967, the Summer of Love. The Seventies are remembered by the Jimmy Carter presidency, which was only inaugurated in 1977. The same for the 1980s - Regan's last year was 1987, the neon colour trend I always see in 1980s parodies was big then. The Nineties are marked by 1997 -the Spice Girls, the early Internet, the death of Diana, the popularity of Friends. The 2000s are all there in 2007: peak Iraq War, popularization of Facebook, the last year of the Bush Administration, the rise of Obama.
I’m currently under the impression that the 2010s will be remembered for the rise political populism, the culture war, and the noxious effect of social media, all summed up in 2017 with Trump, Charlottesville, and the social-media popularity of Jordan Peterson as both a hero and a villain.
So even though the 2020s began with a catastrophe, how they'll be remembered later in the century won't be apparent until 2028, that is, after 2027 has happened. But already, my 'typical 2020s office space' thought from 2017 seems wrong, since the pandemic has made open office spaces without plexiglass barriers seem expendable.
I’ll note here something I’m curious to see happen. In 2026, America will celebrate its sestercentennial, its 250th Year. It will also be the 25th Anniversary of Nine Eleven. The 2024 election will have taken place two years before. I expect a nauseating amount of American self-aggrandizement, self-congratulation, and self-appreciation. The biggest Fourth of July ever, a disgusting polychrome explosion of fireworks. It’ll be 1984’s Morning in America revisited. That year the World Cup will also be co-hosted with Canada and Mexico, and America will propagandize itself into a spirit of renewed optimism, placing Trump, Nine Eleven’s wars, and COVID’s half-million dead as something In The Past. People will say, “get over it” and cynical bitter activists will in turn want to send them to re-education camps. Let’s check back in 2028.
After the 21st Century began, and 'the future happened' I became curious about the 22nd Century. Obviously the target of “futuristic” had shifted, so that “Century 21 Real Estate” no longer had its original marketing zing.
I recall a conversation in 2003 when I talked about how I was interested in the 22nd Century, and I was then seeking out science-fiction set in that time.
I was nurturing an idea for a novel, structured like AS Byatt’s Possession (a review of which I once wrote) half set in the present day (circa 2005) and the other half set at some point in the 22nd Century (approximately 150 years in the future).
Star Trek Enterprise had begun by this time and set itself in 2151, but Star Trek had lost the futuristic mystique it conveyed in 1987 to become its own comic-book universe. So I largely ignored it as a plausible 22nd Century conception. Rather, I’d sought out novels and movies set during the 2100s.
In order to 'research' the world I wanted to write about, I began looking for s-f set in that time, and nascent Wikipedia was useful here, and one page had compiled a series of books set in the next century.
This lead me first to the works of Greg Bear (Quantum Logic series, 1990-1997), which I read in 2003 and 2004. I was enthralled by his description of “slates” which envisioned our present day of touch screen tablets and phones, all in place by the 2040s and carried into the 2170s. From my experience it took less than ten years for that world to become real, although looking back from 2021 I see how really it was a thirty year progression: envisioned in 1990, it had begun to be in place after twenty years in 2010 (iPhone introduced in 2007 and the iPad in 2010) and fully realized and taken for granted by 2020.
While the initial idea for a novel never worked out, I continued to become a connoisseur of the 22nd Century imagination, and reading in subsequent years include Richard K. Morgan (Black Man, 2007), Adam Roberts (Gradisil, 2006), Alastair Reynolds (Poseidon’s Children trilogy, 2012-2015) Kim Stanley Robinson (New York 2140, 2017), Ian McDonald (Luna series, 2015-2019), and William Gibson (The Peripheral, Agency; 2014 & 2020). Also, while mostly set in the 21st Century as flashbacks, Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod was framed as memories from the early 22nd Century.
In movies, most famously we have the Alien franchise, but also A.I. (2001), Avatar (2009), Cloud Atlas (2012), Ender’s Game (2013), In Time (2011 - I signed up to Netflix initially to watch this) and more recently, the film Ad Astra (2019, set ambiguously in 2108).
More often than not, tv/movies that should be set in the 22nd Century (like HBO’s Westworld and the live-action Ghost in the Shell) shy away from imagining that far out, and settle for something more like "fifty years from now" which ends up making them unrealistic. I am thus very curious how the Westworld production team will adapt the 22nd Century from William Gibson's Peripheral in the forthcoming Amazon tv series.
The summary of these works: the 22nd Century is a time of augmented reality, a digital overlay of the visual sense enabled either by implants or some kind of holography. There are various forms of robots with various intelligence levels and versions of flying cars. Surveillance algorithms are to be expected. Mind projection technology enables remote telepresence in robotic bodies, the eponymous Peripheral of Gibson’s novel, but also used in Alastair Reynolds’ as a convenience. There may or may not be Lunar and Martian colonies. Gibson imagined an artist whose work consisted of full body tattoos, continually self-flayed and skin regrown, where Reynolds’ envisioned a ubiquitous surveillance society that had made prisons obsolete.
I especially like Ad Astra for showing a world not unfamiliar to ours, just one where Lunar and Martian bases have already been around for a long time. This struck me as the most realistic, because culturally things haven’t really changed, and it’s easy to imagine the world of 2070 with the same office towers and congested highways we live with now, same as it ever was, world without end.
The 20th Century’s infatuation with novelty and audio visual recording revealed its decades as aesthetically distinct, but this stalled in the 1990s. Since then the only thing remarkably different are the computers. Our attention has been focused on screens for twenty five years, and therefore the dark mirror devices and the psychological cyberspace behind them reflect the effort of our aesthetic, intellectual and commercial labour.
A special mention should be made of Vanilla Sky (2001), a remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes (1997). The big reveal of both movies is that the character had been in a 22nd Century simulation of the late 20th Century. As my interest in the 22nd Century coalesced around 2003, I then took this photo from a VHS rental of Open Your Eyes.
As part of the hobby of studying the imagined 22nd Century, this past winter I watched the first two seasons of the animé Psycho Pass (2012). It is explicitly and clearly set 'a hundred years from now' (i.e. circa 2115), in a Tokyo controlled by an A.I. surveillance system that assigns a score to people. The series is set around the police who work to control those whose 'psycho[logical] pass' has fallen to criminal levels.
I had first learned about Psycho Pass around the new year of 2018, when bored by end-of-year holiday down-time I revisited the Wikipedia entry on 22nd Century fiction, and began to watch it on YouTube in the ‘2020s office building’ on King St East. A colleague saw this and pointed out it was a good show, but since it was an animé on YouTube it was unclear how I could watch the series. This past winter, again bored by holiday down-time and pandemic isolation, I found a streaming service for it.
In the third episode of the second season, the plot is a hostage taking at a generic downtown building, set up with a scene like this. Notice the seating in nooks:
I took screencaps because they reminded me of the cafeteria at the office building on King St West. Which is to say - the architectural environment imagined by Japanese animators around 2014 for the world of 2114 was implemented by Toronto architects around the same year and was a physical reality by 2017. What is continually interesting is how s-f productions - even ones based on drawing, without physical constraints! - become a fashion time-capsule of the exaggerated present. When we see how our ‘present’ was imagined by the past, it always wrong because we can’t anticipate fashion.
In recent years I’ve realized that my interest in the future had been entirely formed by Star Trek and my reading of history. The Future in Star Trek has traditionally been presented as the realization of a Utopian ideal. This maps onto the historical perspective that the 21st Century would be considered a Utopia to someone transported from the 18th Century Enlightenment. They would marvel at antibiotics and hospitals and representative democracy. They would be astounded by how we’d harnessed electricity and built computers and live surrounded by magic glass panels with animated images, type, and recorded speech. Also the miracles of automobiles, skyscrapers, recorded music, the mass reproduction of art, toilets, showers, stoves, fridges and central heating.
Thus, it is easy to imagine the years ahead as a continuation of the trend, the good old ‘arc of history bending toward justice’ and material betterment.
The Humanist Utopian Future functioned as Heaven, and I looked forward to living as long as I could to see how near I could get the to The Promised Land. I’d identified as a “progressive person” which implied a pre-existing morality. My interest in recent years in Catholic theology allowed me to step outside of the Progressive frame I’d been living in for thirty years, and see how it functioned as a humanist religion. I saw how Secular Progressivism has a dogma, one perpetually broadcast everywhere and so thoughtlessly assumed that no one is supposed to question it, just like how in the past no one was supposed to question the existence of God.
Within the Catholic telling of history, we see within the rise of Modernism a purposeful construction of an Alternate Church. That is, a replication of the church’s institutions and models of thought: History is a progressive and redemptive storyline marked by the presence of perfect people.
So instead of the Redemption of the Fallen World by Jesus, His Second Coming and Judgement at The End of Time, we have the Redemption of the World by Activism and either an open ended future within the perfected political state, or the End of Time in a climate change catastrophe, which implies a Judgement by Nature to come. Where the Church elevates Saints as examples of perfection through the centuries, Secular Humanism elevates artists and politicians as people to remember, and builds museums instead of churches to house their relics.
The Alternative Church is an intellectual attempt to have a church that worships human beings rather than an invisible God, and is a Modernist affectation, which like all things may have its season and then fade into the past. Metaphorically, the Tower of Babel story is meant as a warning: human beings are continually infatuated with their inventions, and when we attempt to build a monument to our greatness, disaster and chaos ensue. And so we now live in a mad world with a damaged climate; riven by inequality, corruption, and paralyzed by a disease, while infatuated with death and weapons of mass destruction. Paradoxically it remains utopian by standards of the past.
Regardless, I’ve frankly delighted in the experience of Time and Memory, of seeing how some things blur while others remain clear, and how I’ve seen the city I live in change around me. I don’t mourn the closing of stores, the bulldozing of blocks, seeing the towers rise: they’re all part of the experience of living through a block of time, the great movie of living into a Future. And now History has brought us a Plague, and things have changed and will continue to change, as we manage our recovery from it.
When I was 19 I read Carl Jung's autobiography and noticed he was born a hundred years before I was and died at age 85 in 1961, so that gave some sense of how long I could expect to be around for.
The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells, 2017-07-10