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Jewish World ReviewDec.31, 1999/ 22 Teves, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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20th Century reality check --
IT'S HARD TO SAY much about the 20th century without lapsing into clichés. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: a century of unprecedented well-being and a century of unprecedented atrocities, the age of freedom and the age of totalitarianism. And reviewing the history of ten centuries is truly a daunting task. Perhaps it's better, on the eve of the new millennium, to look ahead.

Our ancestors 1,000 years ago had far less certainty than we do of surviving the next five years. On the other hand, they could be reasonably sure that the lives of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren wouldn't be all that different from their own -- whereas we have no idea what kind of technological and social change we will see in our own lifetime.

Past attempts to envision the future have been notoriously unreliable. The year 2001 will be nothing like the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Brave New World (1932), Aldous Huxley foresaw genetic engineering but omitted computers from his futuristic society, where data on all those genetically engineered citizens are stored in mammoth card files. Today, we imagine flying automobiles and humanoid robots; but we may be missing something that will revolutionize human life, and that will seem as ordinary to our descendants as the personal computer now seems to us.

Of course, one of the things we don't know is whether the future will be one of continued progress. Environmentalist doomsayers notwithstanding, it's a good bet that human ingenuity will find a way to make further technological advances and extend modern Western living standards to most of the Earth's population while saving the planet. But human malice can also find a way to turn the marvels of technology to horrors. Some day, a small band of fanatics could wreak havoc that would dwarf Hiroshima.

If a technological catastrophe remains a possibility, so does the loss of liberty. It would be dangerously overconfident to think that modern information technology has made it impossible for tyranny to thrive. Even in America, the uncertainties of modern life could generate support for a "velvet dictatorship" of the left or the right that would take away many of the freedoms we take for granted today. Might people in 2999 view the rise of liberal democracy and individual rights in the 20th Century not as the dawn of humanity's golden age but as a bizarre experiment that led to social disintegration?

Many futuristic films and books (like Brave New World) also reflect the anxiety that prosperity and progress will rob human beings of their souls. These fears, often coupled with a cloying idealization of simple, pre-technological life, greatly underestimate the power of the human spirit -- and yet perhaps they can't be dismissed out of hand. What if science develops the ability to engineer a child's future talents and personality traits to the parents' specification? What if adults abilities and personalities can be changed by a few pills? Would that represent the ultimate control over our destiny, or the loss of all reverence for the integrity of human self as a mysterious, inviolate entity?

Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies, has observed that the metaphor of a "bridge" to the future -- a straight, single path -- is itself obsolete; rather, we face an array of infinite open-ended possibilities. We have reason to share Postrel's optimism about the future.

But it not necessarily reactionary to look at some of those possible paths with misgivings.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©1999, Cathy Young