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!
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 couldn’t 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.