On a walk the other night I was listening through my futuristic little Shuffle iPod to John Lennon being interviewed by Jann Wenner back in l972, and couldn’t help but be struck by Lennon’s eagerness to see the future. I can’t remember exactly how he put it, but his faith was absolute, unbending, full. How different the future feels today! And no, it’s not just me.
In January this year I was fairly stunned by an essay by Richard Rodriguez in the Cal Berkeley alumni magazine in which he argued that the hidden theme in California literature (and life, let us presume) is disappointment. Now that California’s future is over, Rodriguez argued, that will have to change.
What is obsolete now in California is the future. For a century and a half Americans spoke of California as the future when they wanted to escape inevitability. Now the future attaches consequences and promises constriction. Technocrats in Sacramento warn of a future that is overwhelmed by students, pollution, immigrants, cars, fluorocarbons, old people. Or the future is diminished—water quality, soil quality, air quality, education quality, highway quality, life quality.
There are not enough doctors for the state’s emergency rooms, not enough blue parking spaces outside, not enough oil, not enough natural gas, not enough electricity. More blackouts, more brownouts, too many air-conditioners, too few houses, frogs on the verge of extinction, a fugitive middle class. A state without a white center. To the rest of the nation California now represents what the nation fears to become.
Then, tipped off by former fellow grad student Gayle Brandeis, I saw an essay in Details by Berkeley writer Michael Chabon. He sees the future in much the same way, with less of an emphasis on California, but more supporting details:
I don’t know what happened to the Future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the Future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, US Presidents controlled by little boxes mounted between their shoulder blades, air-conditioned empires in the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it.
But Chabon writes not to bury the future, but to praise it, and to tell us of a new device to restore it called The Clock of the Long Now. It’s a sixty-foot machine dreamed up by several geniuses, most famously Stewart Brand and Brian Eno, which is designed to be put in a cave in a national park in Nevada, and to run for 10,000 years.
The point of the Clock is to revive and restore the whole idea of the Future, to get us thinking about the Future again, to the degree if not in quite the way same way that we used to do, and to reintroduce the notion that we don’t just bequeath the future—though we do, whether we think about it or not. We also, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it.
That’s asking a lot of any machine, but what a great idea! Let’s hope it helps. Here’s a picture of a model of the clock in a London museum, from Wikipedia: