Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Charge-Aught!!!: The Next Doomsday Decade

Remember when the world was going to end as soon as the ball dropped on the year 2000? The Y2K scare and all that?

Well, that's not really what we thought would happen. Maybe some of the crazies viewed Y2K as somewhat of a doomsday theory. But the smarter ones among us just worried that the computers upon which so much of our lives relied would have trouble keeping track of time when the last two digits rolled over from 99 to 00, since many of these computers left out the first two digits of the year to save precious space.

As you all know, the world didn't quite end on that fateful day. Technology didn't betray us, and it continued to develop at breakneck speed throughout the decade. Our computers got better. Music and videos became staggeringly portable. Televisions increased drastically in picture quality and customizability. We put a bot on Mars and have seen the dawn of space tourism. Everyone knows where everyone else is at all times. And the Internet is now faster and more ubiquitous than ever before.

Some of my colleagues have described various advancements in technology over the course of the Aughts. But what do these new developments mean for the future? And how might they impact the newest and most heavily exploited doomsday theory for the decade to come?

In case you didn't click on the link for Andrew's movie review, the doomsday theory to which I'm referring is the 2012 phenomenon. In all seriousness, though, it's not really a doomsday theory. The teasers for the film 2012 claim that "We Were Warned" of the impending apocalypse by ancient Mayan prophecies. But in reality, the Mayans weren't trying to warn anyone; their long count calendar merely states that a new b'ak'tun cycle would begin on December 21, 2012. Sure, a few archeological fragments may refer to the fast approaching b'ak'tun (13th) as one of special significance, but these references likely point to a celebration of having reached the 5,126 year mark, rather than a prediction of some catastrophe.

There are other people who have fed into the 2012 phenomenon. Many have written books telling us how scared or excited or skeptical we should all be. But one particularly smart and insightful guy has some pseudo-scientific reasons to believe that something cool may happen.

The above graph shows the Aughts according to Terence McKenna's timewave, which is a line graph depicting the interplay of two world-defining forces: habit and novelty. In McKenna's own words: "Habit is simply repetition of established patterns, conservation, holding back what has already been achieved into a system, and novelty is the chance-taking, the exploratory, the new, the never-before-seen." These forces have been in constant struggle since the beginning of time, and according to the timewave, novelty is winning.

I'm not exactly clear on how McKenna developed the equation that produces this graph. It has to do with the I Ching, an ancient Chinese method of divination, from which McKenna extrapolated an analysis of time. By plugging in decidedly novel events in our history (the Italian renaissance, the Greek enlightenment, etc.), he somehow came up with this graph that should track the progression of novelty throughout the past and into the future.

The lower points of the graph depict greater concentrations of novelty, the higher points depict lesser concentrations. But no matter how low the graph dips at any point in time, the only time it ever reaches zero (the so-called "zero date" representing the greatest possible concentration of novelty) is December 21, 2012 - the exact same date at the end of the current cycle of the Mayan long count calendar. McKenna developed the mathematical equation that produced his zero date completely separately from and without any knowledge of the Mayan calendar. So if you believe in the "great minds think alike" school of coincidences, the 2012 phenomenon instantly gains some credibility.

I realize that a graph created by a self-styled Psychonaut isn't a "real" reason to believe that something might happen on the winter solstice date in 2012, but throughout history, our culture has based action-guiding principles on less logical foundations.

Despite the exact dates and times given for the rising and falling of novelty, the timewave is not very good at pinpointing actual cultural events that correspond to the graph. At first, I tried to match up some of the more drastic novelty spikes of the decade with profound historical events, but that task proved fruitless. Looking at the big picture, the timewave describes a phenomenon that some, notably Art Bell, have called the "quickening." In ages and eras past, the timewave shows slow and gradual shifts from habit to novelty, with decades or even centuries comprising single hills or valleys. As we approach zero date, the peaks and troughs become smaller and increasingly compressed.

Here is the timewave from 1950 to zero date, with the aughts included in the selection:

And here's from 1900 to zero date:

Not that the timewave presents any scientific evidence that anything is actually happening, but others have noticed this phenomena as well - take this scene from Waking Life, for instance. Here's McKenna's take: "a lot of people have noticed the "time is speeding up" phenomena, but they tend to give credit to science or media or something like that. What' I'm saying is that this is built into the laws of physics."

One thing that does usually signify a spike in novelty is the development of new technologies, specifically the internet, which allows for increased spread of information. Now that the internet is available to more people than ever before, in more places than ever before, we are seeing the expression of more new, interesting viewpoints than ever before.

McKenna on the Internet: "I believe what the internet is doing is dissolving boundaries between people, idea systems, classes, and factions, and we're getting a much richer evolutionary interplay between ideas ... so I see it as a very fertile place with a lot of mutation in hardware, in how people view it, ideology, this sort of thing."

The Y2K scare was mostly concerned with what technology could not do - namely, keep up with the changing of the years. When people programmed their computers with 19_ _, they showed a lack of foresight. No one knew what would happen. President Clinton even signed an Act to help figure out what was going on. maybe people were concerned that time would shift back to the year 1900, when horseless carriages first started roaming the streets and gas-filled zeppelins began soaring through the skies.

And don't get me wrong, some shit DID go down: in Japan, some radiation monitoring equipment malfunctioned briefly, and some cell phones mysteriously deleted text messages. In Australia, some bus machines failed to validate tickets. In Delaware, 150 slot machines stopped working. And the U.S. Naval Observatory master clock reported the date was Jan. 1 19100.


But now that we've become smarter about technology, and made provisions against some of the fears of the past, we've basically let technology run wild. So where Y2K had to do with technology's shortcomings, maybe 2012 will have something to do with the unsuspected heights that technology could reach when given free reign over our lives.

We've seen evidence that the development of culture/technology/life in general has been "speeding up," especially throughout the last decade. But according to the timewave, once the next decade rolls around, we should look forward to a different and altogether unexpected trend of human development. No harm in being prepared, right?