How We Lost The Future

This is a transcript of the talk I gave yesterday at the Improving Reality conference at the Dome theatre in Brighton. It was filmed as well, so if you don’t want to spoil it you can wait for the film of the talk, and the panel discussion which I took part in afterwards with Joanne McNeil, Anab Jain and Warren Ellis. Check out the slides.

Hi, name’s Leila Johnston. I’m a writer, maker, and digital content specialist. I recently completed a creative technology residency at an art gallery in Sheffield, where I live, and I have had two books published: a joke book, and a satirical gamebook about entropy. I’m interested in the cultural response to technology, and everything to do with time. And I’m going to explain to you how we lost the future.

“Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel, or just 20,000 people standing in a field?
…and tell me when the spaceship lands, ‘cos all this has to start to mean something” – Sorted for E’s and Whizz, 1995

There was a madness in the air around the Year 2000 which I think was summed up very well in a number of Pulp songs. It’s the madness that happens when the anticipation of a date is allowed to escalate beyond reason, over a period of decades, such that a date becomes an occasion. And it’s the anticipation that things will change as a result of us moving into a prescribed future, rather than taking action, ourselves.

I’ve given this some thought and in my view, everyone alive today was at risk of succumbing to this Millennium fever, because all of us grew up feeling on some level like we were on the brink of something.

However, the fever was particularly potent among the young.

I turned 21 in the year 2000, and for my generation, it felt personal. It felt as though it was just too much of a coincidence that civilisation was coming of age at the same time as I was. We felt even more special than all the other young people from every other point in history who felt special. Unlike them, we were different.

The Millennium was an event for people who got excited about indie music, Will Smith, design, modern architecture, the internet, the X Files, The Future….

The sense of occasion came to obscure the sense of scale, however, as it always does.

And yet such was our investment in the idea, such a byword for optimism had it become, that we built these permanent memorials to it. The Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, the Millennium Bridge in London, the Millennium Bridge in Gateshead, and the Millennium Dome.

There are literally dozens of these. Have some more. The Millennium Stadium and Millennium Arts Centre (also known as the Armadillo) in Cardiff. The Millennium Seed Bank at Kew. There are a number of footpaths called the Millennium Way. The Millennium Falcon, the craft piloted by Han Solo in the popular Star Wars series.

I feel we are almost embarrassed of these, but we can find  a real charm in them – their optimism, the way they keep hanging in there, going on about the Millennium, after all these years. They’re like photos of us as teenagers, and I feel we need to meditate on this time in our recent past, rather than pretend it never happened, in order to realise where we are – and where we are not – today. For this reason I have had these two slides made into postcards.

Come and see me afterwards if you would like one, and please do send it on to someone to continue this campaign.


I think the fever started sometime in the 60s, and gradually ramped up until the Year 2000, when it abruptly dissipated as though we were suddenly aware there was too much time for us to fill. Things began to run out of steam. Now in its 8th series, The X Files was beyond help; the Millennium Bug had gone with a whimper, and silently we moved on. We expected the promise of a fresh thousand years to expand our lives somehow, but the moment we’d passed through it, it was clear that The Millennium had an expiry date and what it had been replaced with was totally out of scale with our human perception.

The Millennium had come to mean ‘something you build up to’.

Once it was in the past, it lost all meaning. Nothing is named after the Millennium anymore. We have crossed that threshhold and find ourselves with the burden of a new epoch – and we respond with levity.

My generation in particular enjoy talking about how we live ‘In The Future’, and I have a number of problems with this. It makes it so easy for us to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the world we live in. It’s disingenuous and it makes us complacent about the present moment.

Talking about ‘Living in The Future’ makes us think we’ve earned something, rather than that we have to carry on working towards something. Nothing really changed when the clock struck midnight 12 years ago, but perhaps we perceive things around us, including our own creations, as more futuristic and wonderful than they are, because that’s what we grew up expecting. In the same way that people might expect to one day move out of their parents’ homes, to learn to drive, or fall in love, a generation whose lives coincided with the calendar grew up expecting to be heirs to a space-age era.

If our only understanding of the 21th Century is one of inherited specialness, then the alternative is a world which may as well not exist. Part of us suspects the truth, however…

We need to refocus on the present. It is the only way to immunise ourselves against consumer spin, and move into a meaningful future. Thanks to a fortuitous misreading of the Mayan calendar and a need for more meaningful dates in our lives, we have become increasingly interested in the idea of apocalypse, recently. It may be that we realise there will never be a date as positive or exciting as the Year 2000 again in our lifetimes. Without a significant forthcoming date to attach our destiny to, the idea of a non-existent future suddenly resonates with us.

And in fact, as a tactic for refocusing on the present, apocalypses work rather well. I held a series of events themed on different world endings earlier this year. They sold out, and everyone had a good time, but I booked a basement room deliberately, and by the end there was a very charged atmosphere. Everyone was excited, and let’s just say we were glad to be down there.

This is the picture I think of whenever I hear the words ‘living in the future’. It’s a game called Mindflex, in which a brainwave-detecting headset controls air blowers to guide a foam ball around a 3D maze. Possibly the reason I think of it as The Future is because it is almost identical to the dangerously addictive headset brainwave game played by the inhabitants of the Starship Enterprise in the episode of TNG “The Game”. It’s a leisure time vision of the future. It suggests we do live in the Future, that we’ve caught up with ourselves.

But surely the really interesting future isn’t about crazy toys, it’s the most banal one that will happen anyway. When we talk about already being here, we throw away the possibility of an incremental future that is taking root in the present as we speak. It is Hal, it is A.I, but it’s also the inevitable everyday reality of inflight meals on outer space travel. My concern is that in our determination that things are at their most exciting right now, we do ourselves out of the real joy of the present as the beginning of something.

And just in case you think I’ve started to lose it a bit, I asked a couple of experts for their views on the subject. I spoke to Nick Pope. No one knows Millennial Madness like Nick. He was put in charge of the unexplained reports at the Ministry of Defence in the late 90s, and when he left in 2006 he announced “The X Files have been closed down.” He is The Real Fox Mulder and he turns up regularly on any news item about strange phenomena. He had this to say about the Millennium:

“After the moon landings, we believed we’d be holidaying on the moon by the Year 2000. The media deceives, and progress is often slower than we think.

We romanticise the past, look forward to significant dates in the future, and dismiss the present.”

Then I spoke to David Trotter, one of my former professors at Cambridge, and an expert in 20th Century culture and cinema. He said:

“Some future is needed to prevent the past being our only influence. If we drill down into the present we always find situations that cannot be allowed to continue. The best future will arise out of realising the worst present must be negated, not the binding of past to future, smoothing over the present.”

Which is of course exactly what has happened with The Millennium. As we moved forward in time, we dragged a sense of Future back towards us, until it smothered the present completely. It may not be as glamorous, it may not travel by flying car, but for better or worse, the present needs reanimating.

It can feel as though the reality of the present is the one thing it is intolerable to look at directly – fantasies will always be more alluring – but if it is compelling enough to hold our attention, a fantasy can be a great interpreter for the present.

A character called John Titor appeared on an internet forum in the Year 2000 (when else?), claiming to be a visitor from the year 2036. He spent several months chatting to the forum and answering questions about his time period before disappearing entirely. These are some pictures he supplied them with – his time machine, in a 1967 Chevrolet. He said he had been sent back to collect some vintage technology to help debug future machinery, and he brought news of a world which had been torn apart by nuclear war and had reverted to a largely pre-industrial existence. He also brought a critique of our contemporary society.

“I should let you in on a little secret. No one likes you in the future. This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centred, civically ignorant sheep. You eat poisoned food, buy manufactured products no one needs, and turn an uncaring eye away from millions of people suffering and dying all around you.”

These are some scans from the Haynes-style ‘technical manual’ – a guide to his time machine that he kindly supplied. (I think it would be irresponsible for me to reproduce these in detail.) The point is, his future vision was actually rather banal. It was an engineer’s future rooted firmly in the past. And because of that… it was utterly mesmerising.

In summary.

  • We have grown up in anticipation. We feel deserving.
  • Putting a time limit on The Millennium & trying to forget it reinforces our impression that we’re special ‘future people’.
  • The future we may be losing is an attainable one which we have to work for. The solution is increased awareness of the present.
  • This can be achieved by considering the possibility of 
no future, and through a humility and realism about our present.

And finally…

A few words to conclude. The Lost Millennium shows that if a Future is ever so prescribed it can fall within our grasp, it will become a fashion item. It becomes aspirational – something that can be designed and bought, but never quite related to or fulfilled. To say ‘we live in the future’ is an expression of a predestination fantasy. This way of thinking is cheating us out of the exciting reality of growing and achieving a future.

We can be John Titors to our own pasts – even to the Millennium (come and get a postcard) and find a sense of perspective on it. We can know a future and a past – because both are traced on us already, and this knowledge will help us to examine the present, which is after all, all we have.

5 thoughts on “How We Lost The Future

  1. Pingback: Interesting things I’ve read this week – 10/19/12 · Hidden Peanuts

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