The World Will End in the Year 2000, er, 2012, Or, History Revealed
Issue #48, March 2000
"The computer crash of the millennium! January 1, 2000 -- is this the end? The day the earth stands still! All banks will fail! Food supplies will be depleted! The stock market will crash! Electricity will be cut off! Vehicles using computer chips will stop dead! Telephones will cease to function! Devastating worldwide depression!" So sayeth that sage of the grocery store check-out, the last of the old style American tabloids, The Weekly World News. The cover of the 12/28/99 News functions as a near perfect articulation of widespread public fears concerning the Y2K bug. In the hours preceding that weighted and fateful midnight I scoured the cable landscape for news of catastrophe abroad, awaiting dispatches from the other side of the dateline and from the woefully under-prepared "third world." "Power grid down in Korea!" "Food riots in Djibouti!" But nothing happened. The sole eschatological frisson was supplied by Yeltsin's resignation and a five second power outage in North Dakota. Nothing happened. Sure, we could make the argument that the x millions of dollars spent achieving Y2K compliance (meaning submission?) paid off. But what about all the places globally that didn't drop a bundle to fix the "problem" the way U.S. organizations and corporations did? Apart from the none too enlightening fallback explanation of "mass hysteria," how might we describe the cultural tendencies underlying the widespread fears concerning Y2K? How are these tendencies different and/or similar to the tendencies that feed more traditional, religiously-oriented millennial misgivings and machicolations? When might we expect another round of sustained apocalyptic rumination?
This essay addresses the above questions via a discussion of two examples of eschatological thinking. The first, just past, is the Y2K scare and the second, coming to you on 12/21/12, springs from the fertile minds of Terence and Dennis McKenna. Time Wave Zero is a series of mathematical formulae based upon the King Wen sequence in the I Ching, developed by the brothers McKenna in their 1975/1993 book Invisible Landscapes: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching. According to their calculations, at the end of the year 2012 we will encounter what Terence has alternately called the tremendum, the transcendental object, and the historical object; a material accretion of all events past, present, and future -- history made manifest. My claims about these two apocalyptic scenarios are: 1) together, they represent the polar range of eschatological thinking, with Y2K standing in as exemplar of the dystopic mode and the historical object standing in as exemplar of the utopic mode; and 2) both scenarios illustrate a general tendency in contemporary eschatology, a tendency to articulate apocalyptic hopes and concerns in material, specifically technological, form.
The Y2K scare and the Time Wave Zero scenario are fundamentally informed by an ongoing set of concerns with the relation between nature and technology. In his book, the Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx traces this set of concerns through the figure of the pastoral which, briefly defined, defines an intermediate space between civilization -- represented by the machine -- and nature -- represented by wilderness. Marx shows how various forms of the pastoral centrally inform ongoing American encounters with nature and technology. While the Y2K scare and the Time Wave Zero scenario might be construed as functions of this particular historical moment, they are in fact two variations on a theme that is as at least as old as the process of industrialization.
Moreover, these debates are ostensibly secular and materialist but are structured around fundamentally religious concerns. The processes by which material technologies are invested with spiritual properties, and traditionally religious concerns about "the end of time" are reconfigured as fears and hopes about concrete historical events, are indicative of broader pattern that describes the increasing interpenetration of religious and secular cultures in American society. This is why I use the term "eschatology." Eschatology refers to the methods and modes of thinking about the end of time predicted by the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. It is different from the term "millenialism" in that the former term clearly displays its scriptural origins.
"Apocalypse" is the name given to the end of time in the Christian tradition. The term "apocalypse" itself, proceding from the Greek root, implies an uncovering or revelation. In its scripturally based historical meaning, the apocalypse is the divine disclosure that comes in the end days. As D.S. Russell describes it in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, the Apocalypse is "the eschatological crisis in which the cosmic powers of evil are destroyed, the cosmos is restored, and Israel is redeemed." The Apocalypse is the end of time in the sense that it constitutes a shift from profane time, in which mortality is the rule and the animal instincts of humanity hold sway, to a divine space that both transcends and embodies all time, a space that is timeless or eternal. It represents both the alpha and omega of the human species in that it constitutes a return to our divine point of origin, a return that was encoded as the sole and final goal of human existence. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, the apocalypse is the historical money-shot, the release and seeding of the final phase of humanity.
In the human potential movement of the 1960s and its latter-day variations, the apocalyptic sensibility is transformed to a point where divine ordination and human aspiration are equated with one another. The central concern of the human potential movement was and is bringing about the next phase in human evolution. This next big step is both preordained and contingent upon the efforts of "enlightened" groups and individuals. According to the human potential movement, there is an approaching major shift in the nature of humanity. While this shift is preordained, its form and fullness will depend upon the visionaries among us. The nature of this evolutionary shift has been imagined in terms of the development of such supposedly latent human powers as telekinesis, telepathy, astral projection and other magical faculties; as a mass embarkation to our new home in the stars; as contact and union with the world-soul, etc. As Mark Dery argues, this evolution has been increasingly articulated in term of emergent technologies and scientific models such as mind machines, fractal geometry, holographs, string theory, virtual reality, and so forth.
The human potential perspective, as its name suggests, treats the notion of apocalypse as point of transformation rather than as an end. The end of time and history is understood as the beginning of a new golden age. But this utopian ethos, a sensibility in which all roads lead ultimately to paradise, is not the only pseudo-secularized version of the apocalypse. On the other end of the eschatological scale we find visions of societal breakdown, chaos, nuclear winter and heat death -- a spectacle of humanity driven by its own frailties and technological hubris to its ultimate destruction. It is on this end of the scale that we find Y2K. The traditional apocalyptic resonance of the Y2K scare is unmistakable. The very cause of the bug, the inability of computer systems to recognize the year 2000, literally signifies the end of time for the computer. So in the case of the Y2K bug, the motif of "the end of time" so central to eschatology, is displaced and concretized in the form of a computer glitch. The feared results of this glitch, as indicated by the previously quoted Weekly World News cover, are widespread societal breakdown and chaos. The visions of famine, misfired nuclear warheads and economic collapse recall the birth pangs of the new age as described in the Book of Revelations.
The Y2K bug and its attendant fears illustrate the continuing pseudo-secularization of the religious world-view. Here we find the same premonitions of imminent disaster associated with the end of days scenario in Revelations, but minus the explicit hand of God. The factors leading to potential chaos are humanly constructed (instead of divinely mandated) in the Y2K scenario. The expanding global network of information and capital flows is directed via interlocking computer systems, and the increasingly miniaturized info-nodes (from solid-state to silicon to biotech to nanotech). It infiltrates cars, homes, electronic appliances, and pets, all of which suggests the extension of human will and consciousness into a more and more far-flung and integrated system. The collapse of this system without the promise of divine grace presages an entry into a downward spiral rather than a harrowing passage into a new age of harmony and plenty. God's absence in the secular vision of Apocalypyse leaves no space, aside from a thoroughgoing revolutionary politics, for imagining social breakdown as the first step on a road to utopian transformation. The same shared history of an earlier relation between humans and nature that haunts the Y2K scenario also informs the more hopeful vision of the McKennas. But in Y2K's dystopian mode, nature is not a land of plenty and ease to which we might return and linger, but rather a howling wilderness, a return to bestiality and the Hobbesian war of all against all. In Y2K, the computer functions as a sign and embodiment of human over-extension, hubris. It represents Thoreau's feared order in which humanity becomes the tool of its tools. Y2K conforms to what Leo Marx calls tragic pastoralism, in which the emergence of industrial technology finally and irrevocably disallows the material realization of the pastoral ideal. In this understanding, the split between humans and nature is sealed by technology. Thus the collapse of technology returns us to a state of chaos in which humanity is no longer equipped to thrive.
At the other end of the eschatological spectrum, we find Time Wave Zero, the system of mathematical computations and software which predicts that we will encounter the "historical object" in 2012. The vision offered by Dennis and Terence McKenna promises a return to a fundamental union between humans and nature -- albeit a union shepherded by a new computer-enhanced consciousness. The McKennian post-apocalyptic humanity will emerge from its material form and rise into a new dimension of being. The brothers McKenna were, in the late 1960s, engaged in research into the psychoactive qualities of the dimetyltryptamine compound which is the compound found in stropharium cubensis mushrooms and synthesized in the drug DMT. They were together convinced that psychedelics were crucial in "the exploration and reassimilation of so-called magical dimensions" and that said reassimilation was "the next valid step in humanity's collective search for liberation... into eschatological time." Invisible Landscapes is the book in which the development of Time Wave Zero is most fully explained, draws upon (among other sources) works of ethnobotany, comparative religion, neurochemistry and the writings of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Extrapolating from the mathematical structures of the I Ching's King Wen sequence, Time Wave Zero embodies a complex theory of time based upon the understanding that the universal principle of historical time is a movement toward the conservation and concentration of novelty or connectedness. According to the McKennas, the whole of human history is characterized by a tendency toward an increasingly complex understanding of the world. Through its increasing complexity, this understanding accounts for more and more levels of existence and reality. In the words of the McKennas, the historical tendency is "toward synthesis, toward the apprehension of ever more complex and inclusive orders of pattern" (p.29). The implications of Time Wave Zero and the singularity that awaits us in 2012 are the bases upon which Terence, the more public and prolific of the brothers, bases his ongoing ruminations and prophecies.
Terence McKenna, has wowed audiences with his shamanic eschatologischtick in venues from the Naropa Institute to Mondo 2000 to countless raves and beyond. His last three books, including the 1993 reprint of Invisible Landscape, were published by HarperSanFransisco. He presents the audience with a whole series of claims that embody the tendency toward the materialization of the spiritual end game. Time Wave Zero itself has materialized in the form of piece of software -- the oldest sequence of the oldest extant divinatory tool transformed via 20th century higher mathematics and recreational drug-use. McKenna describes the transcendental object at the end of History (12/21/12) as "the union of spirit and matter," the emergence of matter "that behaves like thought." One of the main qualities of the post-2012 humanity is its use of an emergent, fully concretized mode of thought and language. McKenna foresees the development of a three-dimensional syntax, one that is seen but not heard. This would allow (so McKenna's interpretation goes) the replacement of "the ambiguity of invisible meanings that attends audio speech ...(with) the unambiguous topology of meanings beheld," bringing an end to self/other and subject/object dualisms. Such a grammar becomes possible, McKenna points out, in the realm of virtual reality. He imagines a program through which spoken language is converted to a visually symbolic form in a virtual space. All of these transformations pivot around the encounter with the concretized form of history -- the last real ghost of the 20th century. McKenna's theory of the apocalypse makes a thing of both history and theology and thereby signals their ultimate demise. He constructs the end of the world as a tangible object which both exists in and lays waste to the three-dimensional world. McKenna represents end of time as all time coalesced and congealed. His vision conforms to what Marx calls transcendental pastoralism, defined by the search for underlying unity. The search for underlying unity vis-a-vis the machine and the natural world is displaced and rearticulated in contemporary culture as a search for the unity of science and magic, spirit and matter, machine and body.
Thus we see the religious origins underlying two apocalyptic scenarios, both of which point to an ongoing dual process of spiritualizing the material and materializing the spiritual. Perhaps this is part and parcel of the "reenchantment" which is supposedly a central trait of the postmodern age. Maybe it simply represents a strategy for coping with technology that is increasingly powerful and abstracted. Regardless of its source, this dual process informs and structures ongoing debates about the future development and deployment of technology and thus warrants continuing attention. In addition, my comparison of the two scenarios illustrates a tension that informs competing visions of the future. One vision, exemplified by Y2K, surmises that the structures of the world in which we live are somehow the only ones possible. The implication of this view is that the two options we have are to either maintain the status quo or descend into chaos. The other vision, exemplified by Time Wave Zero, has its own problems in that it tends to fetishize technology as a redemptive force, but at least it allows for the possibility of radical change. Perhaps we should all think about ways that we might escape the double-bind described by these two visions and imagine radical potentials based upon human needs and agency. See you on the other side.
Mark Harrison is a doctoral candidate in media studies at the University of Pittsburgh. His ongoing project concerns the figure of the extraterrestrial in American culture from the late 19th century on.