Millennial Notes: Einstein did not `imagine the future'

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ENGLAND, EAGER to re-establish a progressive identity, has commissioned the design of a stunning, vast, and vastly expensive dome from the venerable British architect Lord Rogers of Riverside to launch the new millennium. After all, the country is home to Greenwich, the global fulcrum of measured time itself and therefore a perfectly reasonable venue to mark this event in such grand fashion. The only problem is, no one can figure out exactly what to put inside it.

Nations the world over are groping for ways to grasp, express and meaningfully celebrate the passing of the last thousand years and the birth of the next. Millennial mania, that ubiquitous marker reminding us how fortunate we are to be alive during such a pivotal time, has caused us all to pause and look back at what has been, and forward towards what might be.

France, surely the planet's builder of grandiose monuments par excellence, has wisely decided that yet one more lavish architectural icon in their country might be just a tad redundant. Asia, so recently certain the next millennium would be its own, is busy rethinking its approach to the entire subject, somewhat more concerned with economically getting through the last few years of this one. And, in America, the self-proclaimed owner of the final century of this millennium and therefore to many the rightful host to usher in the next, we are doing what we do best, talking about it.

Led by a capable First Lady, a group of prominent men and women, scholars and scientists such as Stephen Hawking (who after all wrote an entire, if admittedly brief, history of time) has been invited to "honour the past and imagine the future". "Honouring the past" is fine, although we also need to be clear-eyed and critical of it as well. But I have some trouble with "imagining the future" as a serious task.

There is an unstated, widely accepted and wholly absurd assumption about the way we look at the future: that it already exists somewhere as an inevitability, and that our task is to second-guess and prepare for it. As we approach 2001, it is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that predicting has become a growth industry. While scholars and pundits have proclaimed the deaths of such venerable staples of life on Earth as Science, Art, and History, only the Future appears to have, well, a future.

It is the present, in all its nearly unfathomable complexity, that must actually become the central focus of our millennial musings. In this sense, we would not be in the futile business of second-guessing the future, let alone "giving gifts" or "building bridges" to it, as the President and First Lady have metaphorically suggested. Rather, we would be in the business of shaping it. George Bernard Shaw said, "If I bind the future, I bind my will. If I bind my will I strangle creation." And it is precisely creation, the human creative capacity, that is our most well-equipped and ideally suited strength to deal with the edge of the known.

Creative thought is popularly thought of as futuristic, when in fact it is exquisitely grounded in an intimate acquaintance with the here and now, and the unexpected connections and leaps we can make from it. Einstein and Edison did not "imagine the future". They forged it out of a creative obsession with the brute realities of their own times. So, ironically, it is by becoming committed "nowists" that we can most effectively deal with the approaching millennium.

By adding a sharp focus on the present moment to her explorations, Mrs Clinton could help bring to light all the joyous, frightening and nearly miraculous potential of the current unfolding moment we all share. For this we will need all the History, Art, Science and, above all, Imagination we can muster.

Jerry Hirshberg is the author of `The Creative Priority: driving innovative business in the real world' (Penguin, pounds 18.99)