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The past and future

Christians have anticipated the return of Christ for centuries, in fact his disciples believed it would happen in their life time.  Successive generations have predicted the precise time of his second appearance or the end of the world repeatedly. Bang or whimper? Ice or fire? Divine plan or cosmic accident? Alien invaders or genetically enhanced apes? The end of the world is painful to contemplate but also hard to resist thinking about, partly because there are so many wild and scary imaginative possibilities.

The paranoid 1950’s foresaw a radioactive nuclear holocaust in On the Beach, set in Melbourne while Melancholia predicts an unknown planet on a crash course towards earth.  T.S. Eliot foretold an ending “not with a bang, but a whimper”.  Dystopias (opposite of utopias) enjoyed a spell with the birth of Science Fiction and include  Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell (1948) and the writings of Phillip K. Dick (1960) especially Blade Runner

We face a real danger of moving blindly into the future; a lab rat-like submission of the people to innovation, loss of freedoms to the assertive authority of unscrupulous rulers or media pundits.

Our reactions to change are often affected by anxiety – not positivity, even when change is self-imposed.  Fear is a natural response to the unknown; the fight or flight instinct that stymies our rational thought processes.  We prefer certainty to a lack of control and as a result we may sacrifice our most prized possessions – truth, honour and individual freedom for security.  “The road to tyranny is paved with pebbles of silence, fear of others, division, lies, national myths of imaginary threats, and the coarsening of rhetoric.”  Richard Flanagan. He cites the mantras of Stalin’s use of the pejorative term “elites” to denigrate Jewish intellectuals, Hitler’s myth of “Lebensraum” and John Howard’s rallying cry of “Border Protection” to justify hysterical reactions. 

Francis Bacon, a 17th C. scholar commented, “It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequences of discoveries” when he discussed printing, gunpowder and the compass. 

The 19th century gave us the motor car, antibiotics and the splitting of the atom while today we are experiencing the “information revolution” a post –industrial era where information can be amassed, stored, retrieved, distributed and commodified at incredible volumes and speed.  It began with newspapers, the telephone, radio, television, the computer, the internet and who knows where it is going and where it will end. 

Despite invention, innovation and cutting edge discoveries, many original modes retain their fascination and nostalgic use.  The motor car may have replaced the horse and buggy, but for romantic, nostalgic and ceremonial reasons, royal occasions such as weddings and funerals use vintage modes of transport.  Television, computers and the internet founded the information superhighway but have not obliterated newspapers, radio or books while other old technology has virtually disappeared such as vinyl records, floppy disks, reel to reel recording devices…… 

The old will always intrigue; tourists prefer the ruins of ancient Greece, Turkey and Egypt to the glamorous tinsel glitz of Vegas or Disneyland; Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens and Downton Abbey out poll most modern films or TV productions.  Old wine, old paintings, old furniture and vintage cars increase their value with age.  Even old philosophers are revered above contemporary ones; think of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Nietzsche…..

Quotes about the past and future:  

 “the past is a different country where they do things differently”.      L.P. Hartley 

“We tend to look to the future through a rear view mirror”.                 Marshall McCluhan 

Yesterday is history,  Tomorrow is a mystery, Today is a gift;

That's why it's called The Present!      Bil Keane

“It is dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.”

-variously attributed to Sam Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr, Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, an ancient Chinese proverb and others.

"Here comes the future and you can't run from it / If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it." Billy Bragg 

'The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating; the paths to it are not found, but made, and the making of these pathways changes both the maker and the destination.' Alexander Solzhenitsyn 

          “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”   Søren Kierkegaard

          “Study the past if you would define the future.”  Confucius

          What's past is prologue.”   William Shakespeare, The Tempest 

“You couldn't erase the past. You couldn't even change it. But sometimes life offered you the opportunity to put it right.”  Ann Brashares, Girls In Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood

“We should all be concerned about the future as that’s where we will all be spending the rest of our lives.

An excerpt from Düssel…Ian McEwan  

JULY 19, 2018 ISSUE  - NY Times

You ask how was it for me. To answer I must go back some fifty years to a warm Friday midnight and the moment when I whispered with utmost delicacy into the ear of my new friend the indelicate question. I was lying beneath her and she was in all her glory, naked but for a studded choker of lapis lazuli and gold. Even in the amber light of a bedside lamp, her skin gleamed white. Her eyes were closed as she swayed above me, her lips, minimally parted, allowed a glint of beautiful teeth. Her right hand rested lovingly on my left shoulder. She smelled faintly, not of perfume but of sandalwood soap. Those bars, imprinted with an ancient sailing ship and folded in tissue within a long rectangular box of balsa, were once mine. She had taken to them the moment she first entered my bathroom. Why should I mind?

As we came to a lull in our lovemaking and she leaned forward, I put my lips close to her ear lobe and licking it, speaking into a headwind of sensual pleasure that seemed to snatch the words from my mouth, said, “Dearest, I know I shouldn’t, but I have to ask you this. I don’t claim any right to know, of course, but after these two wonderful weeks…I feel…darling, Jenny…forgive me, I love you and always will…but please tell me the truth. Are you real?”

Before I describe her reaction, I should explain for the benefit of younger readers how things stood at that particular moment. We’d been through a social revolution whose outcomes now are entirely taken for granted. The young, I’ve noticed, tend to act as though nothing has happened. They have little or no sense of history. The miracles worked by previous generations—they’re as ordinary as life itself. But as everyone who takes an interest should know, the entire debate began innumerable centuries before, with Plato perhaps, or with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or with Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, or the speculations of Alan Turing, or when, at the dawn of the third millennium, a computer program, learning from its own mistakes by way of deep neural networks and “self-play,” defeated a Grandmaster at the ancient Chinese game of Go. Or, most significantly, when the first android became pregnant by a human and the first viable carbon-silicon baby was born. Only three streets away from my apartment, in a delightful little square lined with cafés and shaded by pollarded plane trees, there’s a statue in Molly’s honor. You would think that there was nothing unusual in such a monument. Except that a pretty girl of eight in T-shirt and jeans, hands on hips, stands boldly before us on a plinth in place of a general, or a poet or an astronaut.

Could a machine be conscious? Or put another way, were humans merely biological machines? The affirmative answers to both questions consumed many decades of international wrangling between neuroscientists, bishops, philosophers, politicians, and the general public. Finally, long after it was due, artificial people were granted full protection under various human rights conventions. So too were their mixed-source offspring. Other rights properly followed, including benefit of marriage, property ownership, of passports, voting, and employment protection. An android could start a business, get rich, be bankrupted, sued, and murdered as opposed to destroyed. Around the world there developed various “autonomy acts” which made it illegal to buy or own a manufactured person. The legal language self-consciously invoked the anti-slavery acts of the nineteenth century. With rights came responsibilities—military service was an uncontroversial, irresistible matter. On jury service, androids were a useful addition, given all the cognitive defects and weak, pliable memory of humans.

Ours was the generation that came of age in the aftermath—turbulent years of passion and anguished reflection. What it meant to be human was being interestingly, or tragically, extended. If the consensus of the scientific elites was that our newly devised friends felt pain and joy and remorse, how could we prove it? We had been asking the same question about other humans since the dawn of philosophical reflection. Should we be troubled or delighted that they were, on the whole, cleverer, kinder, more beautiful than we were? Were the religious among us wrong to refuse to grant them souls?

Then, as so often happens with contested social change, once these matters were talked out and the legislation approved, life moved on and soon no one could remember what all the fuss had been about. It’s often said that the great questions of philosophy are never resolved: they fade away. All those protest marches, monographs, speeches, conferences, and dire predictions were for nothing. After all, our new friends seemed much like us, only more likable. You could trust them, which is why so many went into law, banking, and politics and began much-needed reasonable reform of those institutions. Their natures were deeply caring, and many became doctors and nurses. They were strong and fast and made up two thirds of our Olympic track and field team, though sprint hurdling took another fifteen years to perfect. Famously, they showed themselves brilliant musicians and composers in all forms of music. If ever we worried that they seemed a little too good at everything, we could congratulate ourselves that they were our creation, in our image, the final full flowering of our artistic and technical genius. They were, we often said, the better angels of our nature.

By slow steps, though much remarked on, and affecting social life as well as legal process, it came to be understood and generally accepted that our crafted con-specifics deserved full dignity, and respect for their privacy. That’s to say, in a matter of years it became socially unacceptable—as was not the case in our youth—to ask.

For example, at a gala dinner for a major book prize, you could not inquire of your charming neighbor at table, prompted by a rather too astute remark of his, if he, a highly respected publisher, was a biosilicate-based, locally manufactured artifact. Twenty years before, you could have—indeed, it would have been the first thing you wanted to know. It would have been no more than a casual preliminary. Just as if you had said, I hear you have a second home in Thuringia. So do I! With all the last mutinous mutterings about political correctness fading away, along with the stupid old “they live among us” scare stories, it became offensive, even prurient to ask, since your inquiry would be, in essence, grossly physical, given that the matter of ascribing consciousness had long been settled. It would be no less intrusive than asking of a human over the chocolate mousse, Is it really true? Everyone’s saying you’ve had a colostomy!

Another example. When Mrs. Tabitha Rapting became prime minister with a parliamentary majority of two, there were those who wondered if she was “real”—another hurtful word that has been dropped. But the point is this—socially, we had already crossed a great divide, for such wondering was not done in public. Only in golf club bars, or on street protest marches by marginal, radical groups. It would have been indecent, obscene, akin to racism, and therefore probably illegal. That was all long ago, and even now we’re still not sure when an android first became prime minister. Or if one ever has. Or whether we’ve lived under an unbroken succession of them. Nor do we know whether (or if) an android has ever taken the men’s or women’s singles championship at Wimbledon. Or if a human has won it these past twenty years.

So if my question to Jenny that sultry July evening seems despicable to younger readers, let me remind them that I belong to a generation that lived through the transition. As gruesome adolescents with an unforgivable taste for taunting women passersby in shopping malls, we thought we knew a dozen ways to test the difference. We were wrong, of course—not that we would have cared. Beyond DNA analysis or deep micro-surgery, there are no means of knowing. But we knew we could always demand an answer from the victims of our taunts, and the answer was programmed always to be truthful—until that too began to change.

Jenny, I’m proud to remember, did not take offense. She drew closer to me. Her eyes, now open and deep and black, were fixed on mine. She felt—words can barely perform the task—liquid, smooth, warm, enveloping. Sentient and sensual. Oh, such a lovable self. A bolt of love and pleasure threatened to render me deaf. But my curiosity was so strong that I heard every word she said. Moments like these are what we’ll take to the edge of the grave. The kiss we exchanged before she spoke was tender and rapturous. Her lips, her tongue—miracles, however they were formed. I knew, even before I had my answer, that I would never leave her. So why should it matter what she was made of?

“You’re mine.” She said it as a matter of plain fact. She had uttered these words occasionally during our lovemaking and they had always pleased me. “And I belong to you. Everything else is froth.”

Because she paused, I disloyally wondered if these endearments, however sincere, were a form of evasion. But how dared I doubt her?

“I thought you already knew. I was formed in Düsseldorf in Greater France. So were my parents and the aunts you’re so nice to. But the cousin you met in the restaurant, the one you tried to beat at squash, he’s from Taiwan.”

“Düsseldorf!” It was all I could manage, though the final syllable was no more than a swallowing sound, for I believed I was disappearing. Such mighty sensations belonged not to me but to the world of things, to the emptiness between things, to the essence of matter and space. Around those two entities there rose an obliterating tide of ecstasy. Such confirmation of her strange and beautiful otherness thrilled the world that included me to a vanishing point of oblivious singularity. Within seconds I had, in the colorful phrase of my shopping mall adolescence, “cartwheeled over the windmill.” Feebly clutching at my heart, I briefly fainted. How it shamed me to be such a selfish lover—and as I returned to the present moment I told her so. Of course, it was in her nature to forgive.

I was in love and there was no turning back. But now I knew for certain something about her that I would need to bear in mind. Her processing speeds ran at half the speed of light. She could think a million times faster than me. Tact and other considerations would oblige her not to show it. But if we were to live together, I would have to acknowledge that it would be tricky for me to win an argument or counter any decision she made. In the instant it might take me to shrug and look away from her to gather my thoughts, she could have rehearsed in private reflection most of what was known about human nature and the history of civilization.

So, there it is, this is how it was for me. My generation straddled one of the great clefts or rifts in that lengthening mountain range we routinely call the story of modernity. Believe me, if you have never apologized to a machine for posing the indelicate question, then you have no concept of the historical distance that I and my generation have traveled.

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