As the year draws to a close, it seems only natural to review the most memorable events of the past 365 days. Politically, culturally, ideologically, it has been quite a roller coaster. Many of us have continuously found ourselves in surreal places this year—places we never could have imagined, back when the future was just a cool, glossy picture of technological advancement.

“Did you really think it was all going to be flying cars, slick monotone bodysuits and edgy haircuts?” I ask 1990’s me.

“Kind of. Realistically, perhaps in a hundred more years, but not this. Not at all like this!” I snap back. (90’s me was a bit snarky.)

 

Many of us grew up believing that our society was indeed progressing, moving inevitably towards equality for all, that the gross indignities minorities and women had suffered would no longer apply to us, least of all, to our children. Beneath our sarcastic attitudes and outward grunginess, there lay a bright core of idealism, an assumption that by the time we were in charge, rampant injustices would be a thing of the past—left behind for good, firmly and permanently, trampled underfoot, into the bedrock, like an obsolete artifact or a Confederate monument. Bell-bottom pants, clips of Woodstock and Civil Rights icons from the 60’s made a strong resurgence in pop culture in the 90’s and early 2000’s. There was a rebellious golden mean behind every artistic achievement of our generation: that individual freedom was more important than obedience; self-expression greater than repression; that finding oneself in that “journey with no destination” was the ultimate in cool.

We couldn’t imagine that the events of 2017 would force us, not only to explain, but to defend our fundamental views on race, nationality, immigration, science, global warming, gun control, sexual harassment, sexuality and the freedom of the press!

What happened?

Why can’t we ever reach that alluring utopia of curving glass and steel with zero carbon emissions and beautiful, impeccably-styled residents who have nothing better to do all day than ponder the illusory qualities of consciousness and which planet to visit next?

 

The future, as I saw it back then, was a lot like that 1997 film, Gattaca starring Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. Everything was so sleek, modernity had successfully rubbed off the irregularities and general smudginess out of existence. Watching it again now, it strikes me as both sobering and unintentionally hilarious. Uma Thurman’s character, Irene, does a surreptitious gene test of her love interest, Jerome (impersonated by Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent), what equates to a covert (and far quicker and easier) Google search now. She comes up with reams and reams of paper showing his genetic code. Paper! Futuristic Uma Thurman tries to look elegant holding up what are, essentially, unwieldy, long-ass paper scrolls. In 1997 they couldnt even imagine a future without paper! Who could have predicted it back then that we would be able to access, not just one long ream of information, but millions upon millions of libraries of information, in a matter of seconds, all within the palm of our hands! And we can share that information with everyone we know, as we video-chat with a friend on the other side of the globe, all at the same time!

All that advancement and we still find ourselves struggling on all the fine lines and flagrant vulgarities of racism, identity politics, sexual exploitation and gender discrimination. In recent news, there was video footage of an actual slave auction in Libya. An actual slave auction occurring right now, in 2017 (source). This is bad enough, in and of itself, but the current President of the United States, 90’s b-celebrity, Donald Trump, has discredited the media so viciously that the validity of this disturbing information has been called into question, disrupting action against it.

I never set out to make my political beliefs public or become a political activist, but I cannot remain silent. Although I doubt that I could convince a single person of anything besides my own inflated sense of self-importance and foolishness. This is not my motivation for speaking. It would be great to be a force for good, but ultimately, no one wants to be told what to believe. Not now. Not ever. The question that preoccupies me, that hangs in the thick air of 2017, buzzing with so much opposition and electromagnetic radiation, that haunts me at odd hours is this:

How can I prepare my children for a future that may not be so bright? How can I prepare my children for a future that I can’t even imagine?

For a future, where the disparity between rich and poor may grow exponentially into a vacuous, unsurmountable chasm. For a future, where nearly all traditional jobs will be rendered obsolete by automation—and yet, somehow, the other will still get blamed for it! For a future, where my children may still face discrimination for their race, nationality, and gender. If the past year is any indication of a downward spiral that we still haven’t reached the bottom of, they may have to endure worse indignities than I can even comprehend.

We have achieved so much technological advancement in such a short time. In 1997 we couldn’t even imagine a future without paper…or CDs, or video stores. In 2017, we are more informed, more interconnected, more mobile than ever before. And yet, we have come to the jarring realization that a crucial amount of our information is crude, derived from nothing more than self-interest, greed, paranoia and “alternative facts”.

Modernity has, despite the best intentions of our generation, not only made the world more accessible, more convenient—it has made it smaller, more crowded, noisier, murkier, more unstable and confused. We find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with all these new conditions. A crucial number of us are reacting with anger, even violence. A significant group of people are making their intense rage, fear and confusion felt now.

 

What has now become alarmingly clear at the close of 2017 is this: There has always been a glaring flaw in all our grand designs for the future. It’s the wobbly old electrical lines powering a supercomputer. The ancient cog put under enormous strain by the new, high-speed, ultra-efficient motor. The once secluded, exclusive places overwhelmed with unprecedented surges of migrants and tourists. Our smart phones, after all, are only as good as our internet connection. Our Google searches, only as good as the keywords we put in. The quality of our information, only as good as our evaluation and interpretation of it.

Not so long ago, anthropologists observing far-flung, isolated cultures for the first time discovered a critical blind spot affecting all aspects of their work. It was an incapability within themselves to comprehend the truth, to fully understand the “other” person without judgement. On those early cultural frontiers, that blind spot was ethnocentrism. Anthropologists realized that they needed to become aware of their own cultural and personal assumptions, become more keenly aware of their own perspective and innate subjectivity. They realized that they needed to become aware of themselves before they could accurately observe and report the facts of the other.

Now, virtually all cultures are isolated no more. With the help of technology and globalization, the far-flung, faraway tribes are at our doorstep and we have reached theirs. Today, each of us find ourselves on those cultural front lines, whether we want to or not, despite our best intentions, with no more insight than those naive anthropologists had back then. Unlike them, many of us have less to guide us than the insufficient, ethnocentric explanations of old textbooks and the loud proclamations of power-hungry, populist leaders. How could we be prepared for it? For a future most of us and the generations before us, could not even imagine.

Whether this new, modern, technologically advanced, more globalized world survives this—its shaky genesis—and grows into the utopia, we once so brightly, so dearly envisioned, hangs in the air. It hangs in the thick air of 2017, buzzing with so much opposition and electromagnetic radiation. This world hangs on our ability to imagine just one thing:  each other’s humanity. To value human life, to uphold each person’s dignity, to see the good in people, to have faith in mankind — even when all our assumptions indicate otherwise, even if we believe it to be unimaginable.

 

Text by M.P. Baecker.

All photos by M.P. Baecker (unless otherwise indicated) © 2017.

22 thoughts on “The Unimaginable

  1. My hope is that human darkness has been revealed now more than it ever has before. We can see it all too clearly and so like yourself we cannot remain silent anymore. I hope.

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  2. Progress has always been a fiction. We like to think in a linear fashion, but despite technological changes people always remain the same–same virtues, same vices. If people humbled themselves once in a while and had a better sense of history we could possibly have some compassion for the people we disagree with. Pride makes it impossible for us to stop seeing the evil in others while being blind to our own faults.

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    • Thanks so much for your insightful comment. You make an excellent point, one that I would like to delve into further in the coming year. Somehow, despite the incredible technological changes, our behavior hasn’t changed from the beginning,”same virtues, same vices” but the stakes are growing much, much higher with time, with the advancement of our tools and our impact. If we are still as tribal and impulsive as cavemen, the internet, guns and nuclear weapons can bring an end to life as we know it far more efficiently (or irrevocably) than sticks or stones. Wisdom, humility, knowledge of history should be a prerequisite of our technological advancement.

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      • The story of Pharaoh ordering the killing of all infant slave boys (and the many other mass killings throughout history ) comes to mind. I imagine the people living in those times felt the same level of worry and despair as we sometimes feel today. The strange thing is that often in those horrible times some men and women rise to do sublime, heroic things.

        Even just yesterday seeing people risking their lives to rescue horses from the California fires was amazing! The same bravery (even more bravery) was shone by people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others who lost their lives standing up against the Hitler regime.

        To me the best way to prepare our kids is by showing them how to be brave and giving them genuine examples of heroes. Our culture at the moment has done a great job deconstructing heroes. Constantly telling our kids that our culture is awful does nothing to inspire greatness in them. 🙂

        My opinion is that no matter how many laws we make, humans will find ways around them. I think God has given us a beautiful world and it will be only through Him that we will change. On our own we’re pretty hopeless. Okay, i’ve taken up too much time and space! Thanks for you’re thought-provoking post!

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  3. Incredible, MP. Yours is the voice of insight through this perilous time. You not only examine the philosophical implications of this epoch, you give us a passionate view from inside of it, one full of awareness, understanding and, yes, even poetry. This is the kind of piece that withstands time, and perseveres the test of it.

    As for answers to the questions you raise, I have good days and bad days in dealing with it. Right now, I’m in bad days, concerning this mess. I am usually uplifted with Christmas spirit – inexplicably so, to all my evangelical pals who know me as agnostic – but not this year. This year, I’m still waiting for that surge of hope that accompanies the end of one annual trek around the sun, and begins the next.

    I think the future is better than Blade Runner, better than the Jetsons, better than we can possibly imagine. The changes we see are incremental, and often unnoticed, until they come in earnest and we say “Ah, there it is. Handheld computers. Instant connectivity. Global democracy. Peace in our time. Utopia.”

    Utopia is a frightening word, and one I’m so glad you used. I fear the use of it, strive to implement it. It’s raw definition sends snickers through both simple and complex minds: “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.”

    Perfect.

    Perfect is impossible. Perfect equality. Perfect society. Perfect peace. Impossible.

    But I am of the mind that just because something is impossible we should not discard it as our aim. We have achieved impossible before and, anyways, if you reach for the low fruit all you get is that. Reach higher, maybe even impossibly high, and you’ll get so much more, even if you never get utopian fruition.

    I choose to reach high. I choose to be called utopian. I choose to think that this epoch is the exception, and not the new rule. People will evolve beyond this. In my time. They must.

    But you are right, we cannot just hope it happens. We cannot sit silent. If we are to win, we must again control the narrative. I’m not sorry I know more about humanity and expect more from it. I’m not sorry I’m smart. I’m not sorry I love. It is the base of humanity that must be made to feel shame for their views, not the enlightened. Not you and I.

    Thank you for making me think, MP. Thank you for forcing me to hope, and for expecting me to fight. Sorry so long-winded! ✌️

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    • Thanks so much for your beautiful comment Tom! The longer the comment, the better in my opinion! You are a great writer, I truly appreciate your support and taking the time! It means so much to me that this piece resonates with you. Your work and reading list has been an incredible inspiration to me! I’m learning so much from doing this and from everyone, especially from you!

      Quite frankly, I find myself in the same place emotionally as you are in, having a hard time this holiday season seizing the happiness that’s usually there readily and overflowing. As Margaret Atwood writes, “Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out.”

      There’s just so much to digest this year, to explore, to try to make sense of. I’m glad you’re not sorry for who you are, what you know, what you feel, who you love, what you are aware of. We shouldn’t have to be. There’s no going back for us to something simpler, less complicated, less aware and we wouldn’t want to. That whole “Make America great again” strikes us as completely absurd, given all the hard-won, small victories minorities and women have fought so hard for in our generation and those before us, we have no “great” past to idealize because it never existed, it wasn’t “great” for most people. No. There is no going back.

      We look not to the past but to the future.

      Now, in this far-from-“uninteresting” time (as you put it in your blog), we look to the future, with dueling hope and unsettling trepidation. “I think the future is better than Blade Runner, better than the Jetsons, better than we can possibly imagine.” It’s what makes the future so incredible, such an inexhaustible resource for artists and writers, thinkers and dreamers. It is both so thrilling and humbling, if I said that I didn’t want to live forever before, I have to admit a big part of me does want to stick around just to find out what happens next, namely the next 1,000 years or so, in this, the most exciting book of all time! Or perhaps I can just get the Cliff Notes version and not have to suffer with everyone living through it all!

      A few people have pointed out to me, and rightly so, that humans haven’t changed all that much, that linear progress is an illusion, that time is cyclical. Knowing our history, we should see “utopia” and “advancement” very critically, and I hope I have used it carefully here. The worst atrocities and injustices in our history have come from the hubris of “progress” to attain very ill-conceived utopias: eugenics, Manifest Destiny, ethnocide, to name a few. However, a utopia that is truly perfect for every person and for the whole planet, that is something to strive for indeed. But Why? Why strive for perfection when we are still wrestling with the same feelings we had since the dawn of our existence and will most likely continue to do so till the end of our time? That’s also a big question that preoccupies my mind.

      It is magnificent what you wrote: “we have achieved impossible before and, anyways, if you reach for the low fruit all you get is that. Reach higher, maybe even impossibly high, and you’ll get so much more, even if you never get utopian fruition.”

      I won’t be placated by those who say things like “everyone is a racist, so it’s okay to be one”, if we use that rational, we wouldn’t get anywhere, and anyone who believes that would definitely NOT have any moral high-ground to stand on. I think of a bad teacher who treats all her students like cattle, she grades them on how well they conform, how well they memorize the lesson and punishes them severely if they deviate. Will this teacher get any creativity out of her students? No. In all likelihood no, because her expectations and actions (stemming from that) have already facilitated the outcome. Our expectations determine the outcome. This can be observed in so many ways in daily life: Treat a person with dignity and they will rise to it; treat a person like an animal and they will behave wildly.

      We should aim high, aim for a better future for all, with full knowledge of our vices, even if we can’t imagine it, even if the past tells us otherwise, because it is the only outcome we want. Perfection, it’s the only goal worth working towards, no matter how incrementally.

      I wish you and your family a very Happy Holidays and the brightest New Year my friend!

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      • Thank you, MP, and same to you! Absolute fantastic post AND reply.

        “That whole “Make America great again” strikes us as completely absurd, given all the hard-won, small victories minorities and women have fought so hard for in our generation and those before us, we have no “great” past to idealize because it never existed, it wasn’t “great” for most people.”

        So absolutely true. And now here in the States, over in Alabama, we’re all set to elect a senator who would love to get rid of every amendment “after the 10th.” Sad times. But at least I can chime in here and find enlightened folks such as yourself, to give me continued hope!

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  4. You raise so many very good points. I am a child of the 60’s . When I was in high school and university it was all about Love and Peace. We protested, we sang, we thought it would all come to be. What happened? I worry for my Grandson. What will his life be? Have you seen the film Blade Runner 2049. it is long but a very very good film. It is a future we might see but I hope we do not. But it does leave a glimpse that even in the bleakness there is still hope.

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    • Thanks so much! I will definitely see Blade Runner 2049! I really love all the spectacular visions of the future, especially how it evolves and changes through time. My first memory of the concept was that cartoon The Jetsons, which looking back now, seems so misogynistic, it wasn’t all that different from the 50’s nuclear family with the stay-at-home mom, just with robots! Then there was the original Blade Runner and Back to the Future, and so on. It’s so intriguing how our concept of “advancement” or inability to attain it is defined by this framework of visualizing the future.

      You grew up in the 60s, so all this must be both incredibly jarring and not new to you! It really struck me to see a woman protesting in the Women’s March this year with this sign: “I can’t believe I have to protest this sh*t again!!!”

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  5. You summarize quite well what I see too – the crux of it all ” This world hangs on our ability to imagine just one thing: each other’s humanity. ” As I say quite often lately – we have to get beyond the “suite” the “car”….the earthly vessel that is a body and see with our hearts not our poorly and often maliciously programmed heads!

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  6. Well thought through and written. I totally agree.

    ‘Modernity has, despite the best intentions of our generation, not only made the world more accessible, more convenient—it has made it smaller, more crowded, noisier, murkier, more unstable and confused. We find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with all these new conditions. A crucial number of us are reacting with anger, even violence. A significant group of people are making their intense rage, fear and confusion felt now.’

    Liked by 2 people

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