Did anyone out there manage to clock exactly the moment when this happened? Genuine question. By “this” I mean the gentle slide from normality to absurdity that we’ve found ourselves in for the past couple of years, the slide that looks set to continue, like some kind of demented water park where the landing pools are full of spikes and salt.
What was the first moment/Patient zero/D-Day/Whatever we want to call it? Some might argue it was 9/11, the turning point just over a year into the new millennium, that set the tone for what was to come in the form of surveillance, terrorism, paranoia, the transformation of the USA from “that place with the burgers and fat people” to “that place that could reeeeeeally fuck things up if it wanted t- oh wait it already has.”
But it’s not just the USA, it’s also happening in the UK, across Europe, in Russia, in Turkey, and the Middle East hasn’t spent more than a day out of the news cycle because of war, terrorism, refugees, and more often than not, all three together.
As someone who isn’t particularly old, who’s only been kicking about on this planet since 1994, this strikes me as odd. But not in the “Woah, far out man” kind of odd, but that really unsettling kind of odd when something is just a little bit off. Like a creepily lifelike mannequin in a shop, that’s just on the verge of looking too real, or those moments when a door opens itself and for a minute you just can’t figure out how it could have happened scientifically.
That’s the kind of odd feeling I, and I’m sure many others, seem to be getting these days. Things just seem a bit off, not quite real, but as though something artificial is striving so hard to be real that it’s almost breached the barrier where it no longer becomes possible to tell what is fake and what is not. As it’s referred to in the world of CG and computer games, the uncanny valley.
It’s as though at some point between 2001 and now we slipped unconsciously into a parallel universe but nobody noticed. To borrow a little idea from Community, we may well have entered the darkest timeline.
Now I don’t want to get too philosophical or physics-ey about all this, partly because it would just be boring and confusing, and also partly because I don’t actually know all the sciencey and philosophy-ey part of it, and people many orders of magnitude smarter than I am are still debating this stuff. So let’s move on with our science hats safely placed to one side, and let us don our fun speculation hats instead, because this shit is about to devolve into “Ooh but what if” moments faster than you can say “I bet MJ and Tupac and Elvis are still alive on an island somewhere.”
Let’s assume for a second that 9/11 never happened. Big ask, I know, but in your mind just picture that familiar Manhattan skyline we all know thanks to decades of films and television with the twin towers of the World Trade Centre still standing tall and shiny.
How different would the world be?
For starters, the USA wouldn’t have had to retaliate to a non-existent attack, so Afghanistan would probably have been left alone (under the Taliban which, spoilers, the US created, but going that far back would make this blog a bit unwieldy). That means no billions spent on war, and no destabilised Middle East. Fast forward a year or two, the allegations against Iraq of harbouring WMDs were bolstered by claims that they were sheltering Al-Qaeda, leading to the invasion of the country. But wait, that never happened, because Al-Qaeda never made it to the USA. So Saddam or his weird son Uday may still be in power, but Baghdad wouldn’t have been reduced to a smoking pile of rubble, and the coalition of armed forces wouldn’t have spent years and billions and lost lives fighting. As a result? Perhaps no Arab Spring, perhaps slightly fraught but generally good relations with Hussein, Assad, Gaddafi et al., perhaps no ISIS arising from the power vacuum left in Iraq and Syria.
Okay, early days, and only on one side of things, but already history has diverged pretty dramatically. And just consider the knock on social and psychological effects.
Without the “War on Terror” (as it was so dramatically called way back when), the current air of distrust and paranoia between the West and the Middle East may not exist, or not as strongly. The simmering undertones of racism and Islamophobia, when even the most well intentioned and liberal of us can do a double take when we see an asian man with a long beard and a backpack, may have never come about.
This would be the brightest timeline, the timeline when harmony and good will would have expanded. When Europe wouldn’t have turned inwards and started blaming its ills on foreign devils, leading to the rise of the BNP at first, and later its pasty faced UKIP successor, with similar parties like the FN and Pegida across the continent. Obama may still have made it in, but he wouldn’t have been drone bombing villages, and perhaps that money spent on war would have made it to a better cause. Relations with Russia wouldn’t have deteriorated to the point at which we find ourselves on the cusp of a new Cold War, with the looming threat of nuclear weapons, and increasingly fraught and convoluted relations between Moscow, Washington, London, and Pyongyang.
However, as stated before, this is all just speculation. Speculation at its best can allow us to envision brighter possibilities that we can then work towards, and that’s good, because it inspires a desire for a better tomorrow. Speculation for a better yesterday? Well that strikes me as a bit of a fool’s errand. Which is why I’m doing it. Duh.
This notion of timelines and possibilities has stuck in my mind since I read it in a rather fantastic book called Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark, which I urge any amateur science fan to check out. Not all the theories come from Tegmark, but the book explains it rather well, and makes the aching “what could have beens” just that little bit more bearable.
The idea (grossly oversimplified for the sake of brevity) goes thusly; that every time we make a choice, the universe splits, into one where we continue with the choice we made, and another where we made a different choice. If a dice is rolled, it can land on six possible outcomes, and there is a universe somewhere where every possible eventuality of that roll exists. (For further, more tangible explorations of this idea, check out Meanwhile by Jason Shiga). It’s an awesome idea, one that has gone from the fringes of science to the mainstream thanks to comic books and science fiction, but it’s a rather melancholy idea too.
Things could always be worse in other universes sure, but there’s always the lingering thought that they could be better. We have Trump, which means there’s a universe that doesn’t, there’s a universe with Hillary, there’s a universe where Trump is actually a seven foot tall space gecko, there’s one where he’s a maniacal dictator who has already captured France (because easiest country first right? #Agincourt), and one where he spent his life as a kindly old spoon whittler with no interest in real estate, politics, or banging his own daughter.
There’s a universe where the refugee crisis doesn’t exist, where people aren’t being forced to flee their homes because of war and famine, there’s a universe where all illnesses can be cured, and one where religious, ethnic and political divide don’t exist. There may be one where money literally grows on trees, rivers are filled with chocolate, and every man, woman, and child has the face of Ryan Gosling, but that’s besides the point.
The point is, and there is a point, that though this may seem like the darkest timeline, the one where things are as bad as they can possibly be, it’s still ours.
This is the world that we have, and to spend our days bemoaning what could or should have been, upset that Leave and Trump won, feeling sad every time we see refugees on the news, feeling a shiver of fear every time another story about potential nuclear war or a foiled terrorist plot pops up, is a waste of time. Let’s take our fun speculation hats off, and instead don our introspective, “seriously nodding over a fine espresso” hats.
There comes a point when the choices we didn’t make become as important to us as the choices we did make, and that’s baffling, but human. We are almost quantum creatures, existing in one plane, but constantly dreaming and imagining innumerable other possibilities. What if I spoke to that one pretty girl on the train? What if my parents moved to London instead of Yorkshire? What if (and come on we’ve all thought it) this aeroplane I’m on goes down over the sea? What if I choose a blueberry muffin instead of triple chocolate? Well actually that’s pretty obvious, I would be a lunatic.
But perhaps this near constant rumination on different possibilities is just a very important way for us to remind ourselves that although things might not always be at their best, they’re definitely real. Without getting all existential about what “real” means, perceptions and senses and brain images and the universe is a simulation aside, I think it’s safe to say that our day to day lives as we know them are as close to (if not totally completely) real as things get.
In this age of #fakenews and photo-realistic de-aged actors in films, when the boundaries between reality and fiction are becoming increasingly blurred, this state of constant “What if” wondering almost becomes more necessary than ever. We need to remind ourselves that there are things that are real and things that are not, and our minds need to be trained to know the difference. We need to remember that this isn’t some parallel universe we’ve all unconsciously slipped into, it is the only universe we have ever known.
I understand that this blog took a bit of a convoluted journey, but that’s because (as with most things) I sort of just made it up as I went along, and somewhere out of the chaos of thought and typing, I hope, a sort of coherent image formed. It might be a bit much to link diverging timelines and multiverses to a CGI Carrie Fisher (R.I.P. Princess) and polarising elections, but I like to think there’s a common thread running through it all: What is real, and what is not.
Our choices and their consequences are real, our imagined honeymoons with Jessica Alba on a Caribbean island are not. The universe where 9/11 happened and refugees are fleeing for their lives is real, the one in which Woolworth’s pick’n’mix still exists is not. Acceptance is key in order for us to go around with some sense of security, and I like to think at this stage more people have notably become more accepting. The ones of us that aren’t polarised are more pragmatic, more measured in our thoughts, and that is vital for any sort of meaningful discussion and progress. So although the fringes continue to dominate what we see, we can take solace in the knowledge that there are also level heads at work in places that matter, and working for change for the next generation if not the current one.
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
Philip K. Dick, VALIS
The Angry Indian (of this universe)