The Restaurant at the End of History
We live in strange times. In many ways, things have never been better. The world is mostly peaceful. Poverty has decreased in most parts of the world. Globally, most children live to adulthood, probably for the first time in human history. In developed societies, such as the US, almost everyone has adequate food and shelter. The kings of old would have boggled at the array of food in a typical grocery store. We have little gadgets that allow us to easily communicate with friends, family and strangers around the world in less than a second. We live in an era of relative peace and prosperity that, by almost any measure, is the best of times.
And yet, it feels as if we are living in end times. In many ways, the future has never seemed so bleak. The engines of progress have stalled. New problems are emerging that humanity seems unable to understand and acknowledge, let alone solve. These new problems include population growth, dysgenics, finite resources, and the mismatch between human instincts and the modern environment. Unless we can deal with these problems, they will eventually destroy our civilization.
A positive vision of the future isn’t part of the zeitgeist. I’m not saying that everyone shares my negative view of the future. Most don’t, but we don’t have a shared positive vision. There is no generally accepted vision of where we are going or where we should go, as a civilization or as a species. There isn’t a shared negative vision either, one that would mobilize us to act now to prevent it. There is no vision of the future at all. The absence of a shared vision of the future is a defining characteristic of our times. It sets the 21st century apart from the 20th.
For most of the 20th century, and probably for most of the 19th century as well, the West had a positive vision of the future: a vision of progress. But there has been little or no progress in many areas for the last 50 years. A person jumping forward in time from 1918 to 1968 would be amazed at how much had changed in science, technology and daily life. A person jumping forward from 1968 to 2018 would be shocked at how little has changed.
Of course, there have been some improvements in the past 50 years. Globalization has increased the variety of food and other products that we can buy. There is more fresh fruit available in the grocery store. TV screens are flat and much higher resolution. There has been considerable progress in certain areas, especially information technology. We have information abundance now. But even in that area progress seems to be slowing down. Moore’s Law is dead. Also, our use of information technology has many negative effects. Are we better off having addictive computer-TV-phones that we can carry in one hand?
The left’s vision of moral progress also seems to have stalled, and/or turned into a farce. The dream of a global communist society faded away as the USSR collapsed and China turned to capitalism. The left switched their focus to advocacy for women, non-whites, homosexuals, transsexuals and other “marginalized” identities. At first, they made some progress at eliminating real discrimination and oppression. Once those goals were attained, however, the promised utopia failed to emerge. Equality under the law did not erase the differences between men and women, or between whites and blacks. Sexual liberation did not create a sexual utopia. The revolution has to continue, of course, but the increasingly hysterical behavior of the left demonstrates their cognitive dissonance. They no longer believe in their vision.
The easy problems have been solved, at least temporarily. We are left with harder problems, problems that we can’t solve within our current worldview. We have raced down a historical path that seems to be a dead end.
In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the second book of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series), the main characters visit Milliways, a restaurant located at the end of time itself, at the point in time when the universe was/is/wioll-haven-be coming to an end: the gnab gib. People and other strange creatures time-travel to Milliways to have a nice meal and watch the universe collapse as after-dinner entertainment.
Douglas Adams was contrasting the trivial decadence of a nice restaurant with the profound seriousness of the end of the universe. He was poking fun at our self-absorption and shallowness, at our ability to turn anything into entertainment. The diners were protected from the end of the universe by powerful technology. They were protected from its philosophical implications by their egotism, hedonism and stupidity.
The modern West is like the restaurant at the end of the universe. It is the restaurant at the end of history. We are safe, comfortable and well fed, as we watch our civilization slowly collapsing.
We are at the end of history, but not in the way that Fukuyama meant. Fukuyama thought that liberal democracy was the endpoint of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution. Since the world seemed to be converging on liberal democracy (more so when he wrote his book than it does today), he thought that the big questions of history had been decided, and that the future would just be a mopping-up operation with an inevitable outcome. Maybe I’m being unfair to Fukuyama with that paraphrase, but I think it’s a reasonable interpretation. It doesn’t matter that much, because my goal here isn’t to criticize Fukuyama’s notion of the end of history. I’m just going to adopt his phrase and give it a different meaning. We are at the end of history in that we have reached the end of what we can accomplish with the engines that powered human progress for the last 500 years.
After almost 50 years with little real progress in the West, we have lost our faith in progress, and in our civilization. Our culture no longer has a vision of the future in which life is better. The darkest visions of the past (nuclear annihilation) have faded away, but so have the brighter visions of a “Star Trek” future. We are left with no vision at all. We are safe, well fed, comfortable and even entertained, but there is nothing to look forward to. We are staring into the end of history.