I once met a “futurologist”.  He specialised, he said, in studying the future.  We thought he was joking, but he looked and sounded very serious, even intense.  A futurologist. 
We often talked about it later, a few of us.  What would the world be like if you really knew the future? – if you knew it as you know the past?  It would be the greatest horror, I imagine, a life without surprises; it would be unliveable.  Quite often we suffer because we don’t know the future; but that would be nothing compared to the suffering of always knowing it.  In such a life the future would not be the future but a kind of unlived past.  God has spared us that at least.

The nineteenth century came to an end in a glow of optimism: progress was the name of the future.  I wonder what our futurologist would have predicted then.  How could he or anyone have known that they were just then entering the most murderous of all centuries?  Someone reckoned that by mid-century a hundred million people had been killed in war and by the effects of war. 

Early in the 20th century there was a movement in art, called ‘Futurism’.  Centred mainly in Italy, it was a rejection of all traditions, and it attempted instead to glorify contemporary life, mainly by emphasising its two dominant themes: movement, and the machine.  It celebrated change and innovation, and it glorified the dynamism, speed and power of the machine, and the vitality and restlessness of modern life.  The car had only recently been invented, and the ‘Futurists’ idolised its beauty, its speed and power (though we might think the Model T, with its two forward gears and its box-like appearance, was especially lacking in these!).  The movement became much more than a movement in art; it exalted violence and conflict and called for the sweeping rejection of traditional cultural and social values.

‘Futurism’ seems very adolescent to us now, and that is perhaps what it was – if you can speak of societies going through their adolescence.  Like adolescence, the full flush of the movement didn’t last long, fizzling out before 1920.  But also like adolescence, aspects of it became permanent: its influence survived in the worship of the machine, which became a fundamental part of Fascist doctrine.  And it had a significant influence on the early development of the Soviet Union.  A naïve fascination can have dire consequences. 

Today we still worship the machine, especially the car and the computer, and we again repudiate the past, and we are even more restless than those early 20th-century Futurists.  Their cult of modernity looks comical beside ours, so far have we outdone them.  Our culture remains somehow adolescent.  Like those Futurists, when we try to visualise our future we don't see a world filled with goodness, justice and love.  Instead we imagine a world filled with computers and robots.  We worship the machine more than any Futurist ever did.  We are so fascinated we don't notice that it isn’t working.  Travel is vastly easier than before, but we visit one another less.  We fill our lives with time-saving devices, but we have less time than ever.  Means of communication have multiplied beyond measure – mobile phones, text messaging, email, etc. – yet we lose touch with friends.    We are hurtling ourselves so fast into the future that we have lost touch with the present: in other words, with our lives.  We have fictions of the bionic – beings that are half human, half machine.  We are becoming what we have fantasised. 

Is there anything at all we can do about this?  We have grounds for being sceptical about political initiatives, but at the level of the individual and of the family, can we do something?  We are the ones taking the early steps in the 21st century, as the Futurists were in the 20th.  Let’s start a To-do list, which you can add to from your own experience: to look again at the way our grandparents did things, believing that we can learn something from them; to do as many things by hand as we can reasonably do, developing a spirituality of work; to make a habit of switching off as many machines and gadgets as possible; to visit our friends more often; to get to enjoy walking more; to sit by the fire with the family, with the TV switched off; to read books again....

I can recommend a really good one: The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore.  And when you have finished that, you can go on to his Care of the Soul.  That, in a few words, is what it comes down to: care of the soul.


Donagh O’Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.