This week, as we focus on “Technology and the Horrible,” I would like to pause momentarily to consider the implications of this theme. The word horrible derives from the Latin horrēre, which means “to tremble.” Few other concepts inspire us to tremble, to be horrified, than the end of the world. Throughout human history, we have been fascinated by our origins and the possible routes to our demise. The ways we discuss this demise have evolved with new developments in technology. Technological advances have produced a tremendous amount of good and improvement, but have also conjured new horrors: nuclear weapons, biowarfare, and the effects of industrialism on human rights, health, and the environment.
Considerations of the end of the world, or the apocalypse, are rooted in non-secular worldviews, but have been adopted by secular modes of communication. This division in secular and non-secular apocalypse produces two primary configurations of apocalypticism: the premillennial, and the postmillennial.
To premillenarians, like Harold Camping, the end of the world is beyond the human scale of control. Rather, it is driven by a higher, divine system of order. From this viewpoint, we are not responsible for the wars, environmental crises, or economic issues we face: these are all signs of the end times, a reason for us to release our worldly concerns and focus instead on repentance. For postmillenarians, however, we are indeed responsible for the problems we face, and thus also responsible for formulating solutions; the apocalypse exists within the human scale of control. Instead of looking to religion or spirituality for answers or relief, the postmillenarian viewpoint compels us to turn to technology, to science, and to ingenuity for answers.
In contemporary American film, we see a multitude of routes to apocalypse: the environmental apocalypse portrayed in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), the religious apocalypse predicted in 2012 (2009), the potentially nuclear apocalypse depicted in The Road (2009), and even zombie apocalypses like 28 Days Later (2003) and Zombie Land (2009). This list is but a short sampling of the different forms of apocalypse that we think we might someday face, but each possibility presents its own set of horrors.
Why do we invest so much energy in these grim thought experiments? As technology improves, does our apocalyptic imagination become more horrible? Does our apocalyptic imagination help us prepare to forestall real crises?