“The 20th century is only the 19th speaking with a slight American accent,” was a remark attributed to Philip Guedalla. Now that the euphoria on the advent of the 21st century is past, we can very well say the same thing on the 21st century vis-à-vis the 20th century.
Consumerism surely gave a boost to the aforesaid euphoria, but beneath it laid man's indefatigable optimism for the future. Studies in regard to the future assumed an academic status in our time with the German historian, Ossip Flechtheim coining the phrase 'Futurology' in 1949 and defining it as a new science of prognosis. But the Future fascinated man eternally. Broadly, man pursued four different ways (they did and do often overlap) to gain some peeping access into that veiled dimension of time: (1) through supposedly occult means, letting a medium be possessed by supernatural elements or spirits of the dead or taking recourse to tarot, crystal-gazing etc., (2) through astrology or the study of planetary inter-relationship, (3) through intellectual and scientific speculations based on analysis and logic of events, inventions and discoveries etc. (4) through spiritual means -- mostly gaining access into the plane where time past, time present and time future were one.
But the modern man's attitude towards the future is not one of curiosity alone; he is anxious to mould it. One of the notable thinkers who changed the desire in this regard almost into a temptation was Frederic Skinner, the American psychologist, who devised ways for controlling human behaviour through manipulation of the environment. Skinnerism may not be in popular currency today, but its impact had been considerable on certain quarters that mattered. Some people were hopeful of harnessing human consciousness to their own purpose, and the purpose was not above board. Psychosurgery, the method to alter or reconstitute the genetic components of man, was an offspring of Skinnerism. And who knows how the techniques of Skinnerism, if not psychosurgery, were applied? As Willard Gaylin, an American professor of Psychiatry, says, “Inevitably these experiments are to be undertaken in prisons, those unfailing institutions of failure where each new indignity is traditionally presented as an act of grace.”
From psychosurgery to cloning, the 'progress' has been predictable, but the consequence remains unpredictable. Once again the very concept of progress is on trial.
“One thing about the future of which we can be certain is that it is going to be utterly fantastic,” said the futurologist Arthur C. Clarke some years ago. He was echoed by a number of sensible dreamers, temporarily agog with excitement in regard to a grand future, more so because a new century and millennium were knocking on our door. Global events have since dampened their spirit. Many of them would like to present a pragmatic picture of times to come rather than a delightful one. The picture they present range from farcical -- though with a message -- to hypothetical. An illustration of the former is to be found in Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, in his referring to a psychologist who proposed 'the modular family' -- an arrangement according to which an executive when shifted from his place, leaving his family behind, is provided, by his employers, a matching wife and children at the new place. Meanwhile the psychologist may have revised his proposition in the light of the possibility of a cloned version of the family. But such ideas smack of a very low or cynical impression of the meaning and purpose of life itself.
The spectre of unmanageable population made the biologist, Thomas Euston propose a radically original reform when the world could contain pocketsize human beings. “The technology to shrink humans,” he assures us, should be available soon. A genetically engineered virus, carrying genes codes to create small people, can be placed in a reservoir or released in the air. Then everyone infected would absorb the genes and produce Lilliputian offspring.”
The professor has not shed light on minor problems like, say, whether our cats, dogs and horses could be proportionately condensed. However, he sounds quite excited when he declares, “This new breed of humans would have far more muscle, with the ability to run and jump almost like a cat. Reduced weight would ease the wear on joints, cutting the prevalence of arthritis. Since less blood would be pumped through a smaller circulatory system, the heart's work-load would be diminished and there would be fewer cardiac arrests.” A moderate size bread would suffice for the whole family, and a cabin the size of a roost would prove a comfortable bedroom. Your car would be like a toy. Man's need of space and raw material would decrease to match his stature.”
Disgusted with the rottenness marking man today, thinkers also toyed with the idea of some kind of positive eugenics -- prescribing procreation through licenses granted to select ones.
But none of the scientific, social and psychological propositions concerning the destiny of man had taken the inner need of our consciousness into consideration or had been quite aware of a faculty in man other than his body, life and mind. I wonder if the time had not come to reflect on one of the oldest Indian myths -- in fact the only futuristic one in the world mythology -- according to which the Avatar of the future, Kalki, would annihilate the barbaric elements in man and pave the way for a Gnostic humanity.
Bertrand Russell said, “It is difficult to believe that Omnipotence needed so vast a setting for so small and transitory a result. Apart from the minuteness and brevity of the human species, I cannot feel that it is a worthy climax to such an enormous prelude.”
What this agnostic had hinted at, Sri Aurobindo spells out clearly: “At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny.”
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother visualized a glorious destiny for man which could be hastened if man co-operated with the evolutionary nisus. If evolution seems to have proceeded according to a mechanical method till the emergence of man, it had endowed mankind with sufficient consciousness to choose its destiny, either to perish thereby giving way to an altogether new species to appear or to evolve itself with a conscious determination and aspiration, unfolding the Supramental potentiality inherent in itself.
Nothing short of a spiritual transformation of human nature -- of the whole human being -- can usher in a future sublime, which is the age-old dream of man. But to anticipate that through intellect or scientific means is an exercise in futility. The only hope lies in our aspiration, our readiness to rise above the illusory values dominating our thoughts and actions. “It is the hour of the unexpected,” said Sri Aurobindo. With humility and faith we can expect the unexpected -- a new consciousness taking hold of man and transforming him.