Unlike almost all of us as individuals, our society will be remembered for centuries, because future historians will study the themes that crop up in our culture to understand the origin of their society that lies in our future. So how will we come across collectively when we’re studied with the same detachment that scientists can’t help but employ when investigating something as alien as the behaviour of rats or birds?
We might characterize our culture as “postindustrial” or “developed,” “individualistic” or “free,” but precisely because we who feel at home in our globalizing, capitalistic ethos would prefer those characterizations, we can expect they’ll have little if any part in the future assessment.
The Cynicism of Future History
To get a sense of the impression we’ll make, we need only reflect on how contemporary historians tend to regard ancient civilizations. One of the hallmarks of history is that the ugly truth will out, to paraphrase Shakespeare. The cynical or realistic interpretation of a society’s values, structure, and major accomplishments — which the citizens of that society can’t afford without sacrificing their comfort and sanity — is easily accommodated by the future historian.
For example, the polytheistic myths that heartened and united the ancient Canaanites, Greeks, and Romans eventually look like reifications and glorifications of their social hierarchies. Human patriarchy, slavery, and monarchy are all reflected in how the ranks of the gods were supposed to interrelate in the pantheon.
See, for example, this article on the four tiers of Canaanite gods, which explains the “divine patronage” of ancient politics: “a human king owed his authority to one god, his divine patron. Other gods were subordinate to, and partners with, the divine patron, just as the aristocracy and the commoners were expected to be subordinate to, and supportive of, the human king.”
So polytheism was a story the ancients told themselves to lend dignity to social structures that were actually shared by many animal species. The same animals that the ancients would have hunted for food or for sport likewise often had male-dominated social hierarchies that vested power in a single leader. The same type of oppressive social arrangement that had so little honour in its animal form, given the ancient human’s dealings with those animals was indirectly celebrated in epic poems and tragic plays. A curious double standard!
In short, the religious stories that defined what the popular historian Yuval Harari called the “brand” of ancient cultures are later regarded cynically as tools for mass exploitation, hallucination, and self-deception.
We can appreciate how we’ll eventually seem, then, by exploring cynical, disenchanted interpretations of what we’re doing on the whole. There’s a spectrum of cynical options, ranging from the cruel to the ridiculous. The more emotional distance there is between the cynic and the alienated subject of his or her analysis, the more likely the cynic will be only amused by the subject’s embarrassing weaknesses, rather than being aroused to hatred. By contrast, political parties may demonize each other, because each side has much to gain or to lose as they jockey for power in the same society.
Although the deeds of an ancient civilization can resound through the ages, thus impacting the nature of the future historian’s society, the winner gets to tell the tale. Even centuries after the collapse of their way of life, the ancients can speak for themselves through their literature and historical records, assuming those documents survive, but the ancients can’t justify their practices in the future context. That task is left to the future tribunal which has no emotional attachment to the distant past but only scientific detachment and pride in its “advanced” culture to drive the merciless theorizing of its judges.
A Future Historian Speaks!
To illustrate, here’s how I imagine a future historian might interpret our “Western” or American-led civilization:
In the early 21st century, their entertainment industry was dominated by “superhero movies,” deriving from mid-20th century “comic books” that were written for children. “Blockbuster” movies that had the chance of selling the most tickets were also the most expensive to make, because of their reliance on action and on the use of cutting-edge technology of the period. Thus, movie studios capitalized on the prevailing nostalgia and retold their earlier stories over and over again, instead of taking on the artistic challenge of telling a new, more authentic and relevant story to grapple with the problems with their society.
The evident nostalgia and infantilization marked by the elevation of comic book fare were caused by fear of the accelerating changes throughout their economy and culture, brought on by the technological godhood that began to emerge in the “internet,” genetic engineering, and nanotech. What they were witnessing was the nascent stage of the transhuman. Women and minorities demanded equal rights so that white European males could no longer exploit their slaves. To suggest that all people should be treated equally, as dictated by the “secular Enlightenment” appeal to the minimal degree of personhood as the basis of moral standing is to condemn once and for all any human imitation of animals. “No more dominance hierarchies!” the “moderns” might as well have been chanting.
But as brave as they were in cutting themselves off from the norms of the animal kingdoms, the “feminists,” “liberals,” and “postmodernists” were terrified of the social progress they’d unleashed, terrified of what they were becoming.
While some daring science fiction authors relished the chance to speculate on the prospects for transhumanity, science fiction as a genre suffered a comparable fate as the other modes of entertainment in that transitional era. The creators of that time were handicapped not just by the fear that drove them to retreat to fetal ignorance, but by “identity politics,” a reversion to tribal conflicts that belied their ideal of equality. To achieve equality with the dominant class, each group had to emphasize the features that made it unique, to avoid being overlooked and swept into an oppressive monoculture. Thus, the liberal societies fragmented. For example, popular culture identified an array of subcategories of sexual orientation, each meant to provide dignity to a smaller and smaller subgroup.
But the more tribal differences were magnified, the harder it was to imagine that all such “liberated people” were equal. Instead of being inspired by their feeling that everyone has equal worth, science fiction authors were beset by a code of “political correctness,” as were all idea-creators of the period. The intrusion of this confused politics into science fiction and into popular culture in general prevented the artists from focusing on the task at hand, which was to face and to make themselves worthy of the dawning future. The popular stories of the period were therefore marred by “virtue signaling” and censorship, and the more earnest audience members lost interest.
That incoherent politics reached its nadir in the pseudofascist regime of Donald Trump, so-called president of liberated America, whose corruption and dictatorial gestures contradicted the country’s enshrined values at every turn. The authoritarian resurgence in the United States, Europe and other “free” societies was a backlash, however, against self-destructive liberalism. Politically and economically free people were supposed to prosper, but democratic and capitalistic nations provided predatory and parasitic individuals ample opportunities to dominate the majorities by means of irrational persuasion and wealth accumulation.
Nostalgia, infantilization, incoherent politics, fear of the future — these were so many crude defenses against what was even then becoming apparent, which was the end of humanity as an animal species. Today in the early 23rd century, we take our technological godhood for granted. But back then, the thought of not being beholden to animal norms was intolerable. As lethal as our ancestors were to most species they encountered, and as grandiose as their religious self-images, the technological and cultural realization of those daydreams was an existential threat to those faltering generations. It took another hundred years for our ancestors to realize that “equal rights” meant universal submission of the biological to the artificial, of people to the machines.