The Thousand-Year Hype

It's time to throw some cold water on the hoopla that's building up as we approach (cue drum roll, accompanied by blaring trumpets and fireworks) THE MILLENNIUM.

Call me grumpy, reactionary, or a killjoy, but don't call me with an invitation to a cosmic party in the Grand Canyon on New Year's Eve 1999. And I refuse to argue about whether the actual starting point of the next thousand-year stretch is 2000 or 2001. Neither date is getting special treatment in my appointment book.

It's almost impossible to turn around these days without stumbling into a discussion about what's coming as we enter the new millennium. I've heard educators claim that school reforms are needed to help students meet the challenges on the other side of 2000. Similar forecasts have been directed at the business community, the environment, and pretty much all areas of American life.

Am I missing something? The way some people are talking, you'd think we're about to cross some great mystical threshold that will have universal significance for everyone on the planet. In fact, it's just a simple chronological milepost that has already been reached several times in recorded history.

The celebration of Rosh Hashanah earlier this month ushered in the year 5758 on the Jewish calendar. No big whoop. And the Chinese calendar is currently clocking in at 4695 and counting. So, many people around the globe can look at the approaching 21st century and truthfully say, "Been there. Done that."

The last time we had this much collective anticipation was during the countdown to 1984. Media pundits wondered if the real world was turning into the thought-controlled police state of George Orwell's imagination. The answer was, of course, no (although many conspiracy theorists and militia leaders believe otherwise).

Orwell did correctly predict a few things, such as the erosion of individual privacy in the modern world. But the biggest threat to my personal solitude isn't coming from the government. What I desperately need is protection from pushy telemarketers who constantly phone at dinnertime to offer me incredible and unprecedented discounts on carpet cleaning and windshield repair.

Speculative fiction has also played a huge role in creating a wide variety of expectations about the millennium. Writing in the late 19th century, Edward Bellamy caused a sensation with his book Looking Backward, 2000-1887. He portrayed a society where citizens worked to the best of their abilities, consumed only what they needed, and felt good about the whole system. Although the book left out a few key details, such as exactly how America would move from the Gilded Age into the Utopian Period, it did inspire huge numbers of readers with the idea that a better world was coming in the next millennium.

IN the film "2001: A Space Odyssey," Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke envisioned a future in which humanity reaches its ultimate destiny by using space travel to connect with a higher intelligence. Since the race to the moon was in high gear in those days, the filmmakers probably thought their timeline wasn't unrealistic. But the pace of change has slowed down tremendously. In case you hadn't noticed, the real 2001 won't look very different from its 1968 release date. No Americans have walked on the moon since 1972. The only space station in orbit is Russian. And unlike the powerful and malevolent HAL, the little computers on board Mir have had trouble just keeping themselves turned on.

Thinking about the marvelous predictions floating around during my childhood, I'm chagrined so few have come true. Nobody's wearing personal rocket belts, and there are no domed cities under the ocean.

Some forecasts seem to get recycled. I vividly recall sitting in elementary school and hearing my teacher explain how cars would someday drive themselves, using a special electronic cable buried under the road. I assumed the concept was defunct. But then, earlier this year, the news media reported that work is underway on a 5.7 mile "Smart Road" near Blacksburg, Va. And a 7.6-mile section of freeway north of San Diego has been equipped as an "Automated Highway System." The idea may be moving along, it certainly isn't setting any speed records.

In some areas of popular culture, I believe time is actually moving in reverse. Thirty years ago, who would have believed that by 1997 crewcuts for men would not only be fashionable again, but also hip? This trend was never predicted by any futurist, think tank, or Nostradamus.

There's no reason to expect that any life-transforming events will occur at the moment when the 20th century slips into the past. And I've learned that massive media hype usually results in a huge letdown. Who can forget that fiasco back in 1973 with Comet Kohoutek? The forecasters said it was so bright that it would be visible during the daytime! I still get a stiff neck just thinking about it.

My main goal for the 21st century is to keep making the house payment each month. And I'm hoping the Social Security system won't go bankrupt before I'm old enough to collect.

Civilization might reach utopia someday. It would be nice to have everyone in the world living comfortably and happily, maybe even under a watery dome. At the rate we're going, though, it may take another millennium.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, who lives in Portland, Ore., is the author of "It Came With the House" (Catbird Press, 1997).

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