You ever wonder why we keep on predicting apocalypses even though they never come true?
As you read this, it’s December 21, 2012, and the world hasn’t ended. I’m writing this in advance, but I’m making that statement with casual certainty, because this is far from my first apocalypse, and so far the predictive value of all of them has been zero. Betting against the end of the world is actually mathematically safer than betting against the Washington Generals.
So why do we keep playing this game? Why do we keep recycling apocalypses over and over?
We see a great many ends of the world throughout history. The various forms of Christianity have a history of taking that bit about Jesus coming back and ending history quite seriously from time to time, for example. The early Christians believed that Luke 21:32′s admonition “This generation shall not pass away until all this [messianic return stuff] has come to pass” referred to their generation. A portion of every generation since believed the same thing, as do all too many current Christians. Their batting average so far is .000, but they’ve got a really good feeling about this next season.
In the year 1000 AD, there was a particular surge of messianic, apocalyptic fervor. Surely Christ would return and end everything on a big round number, right? It didn’t happen. No problem, they just adjusted the doctrine. He’d return in 1033, on the thousand-year anniversary of the Ascension. That didn’t happen either. This has repeated, with variously tortured numerology, every year since.
The Christian apocalypse got its biggest boost in the 19th century, when a fringe theologian named John Darby invented the concept of the Rapture, and an outright weirdo named Cyrus Scofield started selling an annotated Bible based on Darby’s concept and his own rather fanciful notions of prophecy. This did well, partly because it offered a crazy, over-the-top Jack Kirby apocalypse involving giant beasts and plagues and bloodshed and explosions, and partly because it promised that this apocalypse was coming any minute now, which is a good selling point.
Just remember that the next time someone’s telling you that all that stuff about the Antichrist and the Mark of the Beast and the Tribulations and so on, and how it’s a “literal reading of the Bible”: the stuff they’re telling you has attributable authorship and copyright, and was invented more recently than telephones.
This apocalypse remains both popular and imminent in America today, and has my entire life. Supermarket tabloids have predicted one apocalypse or another every week since I can remember. The Rapture has been predicted every year I’ve been alive. My personal favorite has to be Edgar C. Whisenant’s book 88 Reasons The Rapture Will Be In 1988, which I used to see on the coffee tables of fundamentalist relatives. It sold millions, literally millions of copies, though admittedly as of this writing it’s been out of print for… oh, almost exactly 24 years. Right now the good folks at Rapture Ready are certain it’ll be any day now, as they have been every day since they started. The dismayingly popular Left Behind series was set in “the near future” when it was written, and has recently had a new edition released to bring its severely dated technology into something resembling the 21st century.
I don’t mean to pick on the Christians too much here; more secular folks have our own apocalypses, and they have a way of being imminent too. When I was a kid, it was nuclear armageddon. Every science fiction writer, in preparing their future history, had to account for how humanity survived and recovered from the terrible, earth-wrecking nuclear holocaust that was due any day now. Things got a bit confused after armageddon was called off in the early 90s. For a while Y2K tried to stand in for it, but that had way too specific a deadline, and it fizzled.
The interest in the world ending today, December 21, 2012, was honestly kind of half-hearted. Folks tried to gin up the old enthusiasm, but it was mostly just going through the motions. Nobody was quitting their job and hiding in the mountains. We were just having an apocalypse to tell ourselves we had one.
Fortunately, we’ve got a new apocalypse on the horizon, one with its own mutant Rapture, that is most fervently supported, ironically, by atheists.
The theory of the Singularity has a great many things distinguishing it from other apocalypses: it’s entirely irreligious, it’s usually fairly optimistic, and it’s actually backed up by a surprising amount of theoretical math.
Stated briefly: the pace of technological change follows an exponential curve. It took 10,000 years to invent baskets, 5,000 to get the hang of bronze, 2,000 to figure out ironworking, 1,000 to get sanitation down, and right now if your all-purpose communication/entertainment/information pocket miracle is three years old, your friends make fun of you for packing an antique. Each breakthrough comes faster than the one before it, in a feedback loop. Exponential curves always warp off toward infinity at some point, and Singularity theory holds that we’re close to that point. When the tools we change things with and the intelligence we use for those tools crosses a certain threshold, the feedback accelerates to a speed beyond anything we’re presently capable of comprehending, and we enter a zone of possibility no current model can even start to predict.
What happens then is by definition impossible to guess, which doesn’t stop anyone. Some say we’ll all upload ourselves into perfect cyberconsciousnesses, linked to cognitive capacities and realms of experience we’re incapable of imagining with our current meat-based brains that evolved to find fruit and things to hump. Others caution that the rate of change will outpace our ability to survive it, and (for example) rogue nanoassemblers will cheerfully convert all matter on earth into nanoassemblers and await further instructions. Or we’ll invent a perfect superintelligence that decides it doesn’t need humanity except as a source of cheap carbon. Or… well, by definition, the possibilities are infinite.
What’s really interesting to me about the Singularity is the way in which it doesn’t differ from the other apocalypses. Sure, it’s got math behind it. But the emotional need it fills is all too familiar.
Members of doomsday cults will, with metronomic regularity, quit their jobs, empty their bank accounts, sell their houses, and go await the comet or the UFO or the bomb or the Rapture or whatever’s supposed to be coming. A lot of them have trouble putting their lives back together after it doesn’t happen, especially if it’s not the first time they’ve done this.
When I was a kid, a common expression used to dismiss concerns about the long-term future was “Well, before long we’ll all get nuked to hell and it won’t matter anyway.”
James Watt, the honest-to-god Secretary of the Interior in the 80s, dismissed concerns about sustainability with “I don’t know how many generations we have before the Lord comes back.”
Rapture enthusiasts get slapped down by their community if they dare to express too many concerns about how things might work out in this world, rather than the next one, which they all agree they’ll be joining any minute now.
I’ve seen Singularity fans talk about how we should just defund the EPA right now, and how donating money to save lives in the present is pointless, because developing friendly artificial intelligence and surviving the Singularity is the only real issue facing mankind.
Every apocalypse, every single one, regardless of where it comes from, serves the same emotional need: it absolves the believer from responsibility for the future.
I don’t want to make fun of that impulse, either. Responsibility for the future is huge. It’s crippling. It’s unthinkably large and it belongs to every one of us. Every decision we make, everything we build, and worse, everything we choose not to build, that is what lays the foundation for the future. If we take the job at the call center instead of the restaurant, if we blow off a date for volunteer work, or blow off volunteer work for a date, that changes the connections we make, the lives we touch, the shape of the world around us, and all of those decisions together are what the future is built on. My father calls it karma vertigo, and it weighs heavy on everyone who ever gave a thought to their moral responsibilities.
It’s way easier to believe there isn’t a future. That lets us off the hook. Events are out of our hands. We can relax and do what we want, because the gods or the nukes or the supercomputers are going to render everything we do moot anyway.
It is a blissfully liberating feeling to be moot.
That’s why we’ll have another apocalypse next year, and the year after that. There’ll be a prophecy or an omen or some damn thing, an asteroid or a threat or a virus… we’ll come up with something. We always have. That’s also why I can’t wholly subscribe to Singularity theory: yes, it’s got some good math backing it up, but I don’t trust anything that is so effectively serving that same emotional need, the one with the batting average of .000.
The world’s still here today. It’ll still be here tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will creep in this petty pace from day to day, and that’s what we need to plan for. That’s what we need to take responsibility for. Look around you, see what needs doing, pick up a tool, and get started. Pace yourself; there’s plenty of time.