Thousand Year Itch
AND here are a few New Year's thoughts. Technically, the third millennium doesn't start until 1 January 2001 -- at which point we may all be breathing a sigh of relief at having picked up from the Y2K bug and that the religious millennialists have calmed down -- but that doesn't much matter. Equinoxes and solstices and sunrise and sunset are real, but the numbers we hang on them are purely our own invention and, like the White Knight's gadgets, aren't always designed for efficiency.
If we're lucky, since most people think the millennium begins on 1 January 2000, they'll stop talking about "the next millennium" a year sooner than they would if they weren't assuming a year zero.
In the meantime, I'm still musing over a headline I saw back in July, on a trade paper that was lying around the office. It referred to "the ultimate trade show of the next millennium". Do these people have the slightest idea of what a millennium is? It doesn't mean "the few years right after a year with three zeroes in it". The "next millennium" isn't the years 2000 through 2004 inclusive. It isn't even the rest of my life, or yours, or even that of the three babies who were born within a few seconds of midnight to get their names on this morning's radio news.
A millennium is a thousand years. That's a long time. Longer than the human imagination can easily encompass.
Let's get in the wayback machine for a moment.
Welcome to AD 999. You're somewhere in Europe, or it wouldn't be 999. It might be 389 years after the Hejira, or 10 Caban (Quake), long count 126.96.36.199.17, or the fifth year of the reign of someone you've never heard of. The people around you are speaking a language that vaguely resembles Latin, though a Roman of Caesar's day would either fail to recognize it or be disgusted at their barbaric accents and grammar. But don't worry about that; split the difference with French, Spanish, or Italian, and hope they'll be patient with you.
If you can find a few patient locals, sit down, have some bread and bad wine (don't trust the water) and ask some of them to predict the most important events of the next thousand years.
Some of them will talk about the Second Coming of Christ: there are a lot of Christians around you, after all. A few might predict glorious victory for the armies of whatever country they're in, or talk about the next harvest. Most will stare blankly, because it's a very weird question, when you come down to it. A thousand years! A thousand years before that, the Roman empire was new, the stirrup was an exotic device, and nobody in Europe had heard of the Huns. Genesis was an obscure book, monotheism the odd belief of a few people on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, and who -- Roman citizen or decent Germanic tribes-woman -- would have expected that to change?
Nobody is going to predict Christopher Columbus, the steam engine, railroads, or antibiotics.
You don't have to believe in Vernor Vinge's Singularity to suspect that the most exciting and important events of the next millennium will not take place in the next few years, and that 2999 is likely to be as different from 1999 as 1999 is from 999. Or perhaps to hope that they won't -- any of those convenient catastrophes beloved of a certain sort of science fiction writer -- a nearby super-nova, a large asteroid hitting London, a nuclear war -- would likely be the most important event of the next thousand years, so much so that nobody would be likely to be thinking much about calendars, or tradeshows (remember tradeshows? This is a song about tradeshows) afterwards.
Failing that, 2999 almost has to be very different from 1999, perhaps especially if it looks the same: one of the defining aspects of our culture is rapid change. If the language, technology, customs, or clothing of 2999 are much like ours, the attitude with which they're used will be very different. We're used to a world in which computers are replaced every three years, because the new ones are so much faster, and the programs are written to use, and need, that extra speed and space; the seven-year-old machine on which I'm writing this is noticeably old, and by some standards -- including my own, compared to what I can do on the machine at my office -- slow. I doubt our descendants will still be using PCs and keyboards a thousand years hence, but if they do, they'll be using them in the context of a very different computer industry, one in which computers are like bookshelves or teakettles, things that we know how to make well, don't change much, and replace when they break.
Conversely, if the event that magazine was talking about, or any event in the next decade, is "the ultimate trade show of the next millennium", it will be because trade shows as we now understand them prove to be ephemeral, as we decide we want a general market, not a specialty show, or we start buying everything remotely -- that one is so much the current hot idea that I suspect it will fade as quickly as it appeared, and online commerce will take a place alongside conventional catalog shopping but not replace the trip to the store to examine the furniture, choose your own pound of tomatoes, and chat with the shopkeeper -- or as capitalism is replaced by something as yet unimagined, taking most of its accoutrements with it.