by Brooks Riley
In or around 1970: It was one of those humid hot nights in New York. At a party on someone’s brownstone roof, I was hawking my theory of how the world would end, to a couple of contemporaries I’d just met. It went like this: We would never be able to save the planet from the multiple disasters of our own making because we are incapable of preventive action, only reaction. When disaster strikes we react. Warned of imminent disaster, we try to react. But warned of a disaster at some indeterminate point in the future, we don’t react at all, we merely furrow our brows sympathetically and continue on with the here and now. It’s built into our genes. Now is everything. Someday has no meaning, except to a squirrel.
“Far out!’ said my interlocutor, if you could call him that. Suddenly I felt uncouth, a reluctant soothsayer with egg on her face, a Cassandra manqué. Was that all that could be said about my pessimistic view of the world? Was there no valid counter-argument brewing under the bushy brows of the young dissident I was talking to–or at, in this case?
It was a sign of the times that my contemporaries were activists, pacifists, and also, like this one, ‘passivists’. ‘Go with the flow ‘ was the motto for my generation, and the flow was anti-establishment, countercultural but also counterproductive. Many yelled their heads off against the war in Vietnam, against the domination of big business, against inequality of all kinds, and against nearly everything their parents stood for. I stayed away from these social gatherings, but I nodded in agreement.
Were we for something? We were for peace (‘Give peace a chance’), but as we’ve since learned, one man’s peace is another man’s compromise: Sooner or later a simmering détente will come to a boil again, it always does, sometime, somewhere.
Did the world change? It was tweaked in small ways, but little is left of those ideals. At least, little is left of the youthful pursuit of those ideals. We still go with the flow. Today’s flow is buried in code; it’s the ‘I-got-algorithm’ generation, uninterested in the physical world and its problems unless it’s to do with a gadget, an app, or a dunkin’ donut, blissfully contributing to big data in the guise of personal expression.
The problem with code is that those who know how to code are not necessarily creative or imaginative people. Trolling the app shops yields few treasures, certainly nothing earth-moving, only time-consuming. Is there an app for ending the war in Syria? Is there an app for solving world poverty? Is there an app for anything going on outside our hip-hop haphazard cyberlife?
We spend as much time going backward (Creationism, or the ‘good old days’ of the Soviet Union) as forward. Our gurus now reside in Silicon Valley. The dead ones like Steve Jobs achieve secular sainthood for no particular reason. Geeks bow down to Apple. And it’s not fashionable to like Windows even though Bill Gates and his wife seem to be alone in trying to make a difference in the physical world.
Facebook wants to know everything about you. Google wants to blanket the planet with a lot more than just cameras. Amazon wants your business from the cradle to the grave. Branson wants to go to the moon. But where is the vision? (Google Glass doesn’t offer that.)
The true visionaries are out there, speaking their mind, thank god for that (Pinker, Dawkins, Rifkin, Kurzweil, Minsky and so many others). But they have no power relative to the power of the few who made it past start-up status. Where are the Medicis when we need them? Why isn’t there a think tank in Silicon Valley?
If commerce has more power than governments, and there is ample evidence for such a Realpolitik (Putin didn’t blink or budge until the markets turned against him), then commerce should assume a positive role in other injustices perpetrated around our planet. Commerce with conscience. Dream on.
Knowing how the world will end was my youthful folly. I might still be right, but I’ve gained just enough wisdom over the years not to make dire predictions anymore. Cassandra is retired. And in the end, it’s not about the end. It’s about the here and now.
‘Far out’ has been replaced with the equally irritating ‘awesome’ (and its UK cousin ‘brilliant’), words that provide a passive response that doesn’t require having to wrap one’s brain around something conceptual, consequential, or intellectually challenging. These words are showstoppers, applause mechanisms, like Facebook’s ‘like’. Instead of pleasing the recipient, they end the dialogue, if there was ever one in the first place.
These words have never crossed my lips until now. In my helplessness, I find myself at a loss for words. Looking at the world in its present state I can only say:
And believe me, in this case, it’s not a compliment.