What Would Future Anthropologists Say About Us?

Anthropology of Speculation

image from the film Tomorrowland (2015)

Anthropology is a good discipline to study the past and the present human societies. However, what about the future? Can it predict it?

Anthropologists will not be better than science fiction authors at predicting the future. Neither would they be better at predicting human evolution or social change.

Still, it is a noble intellectual exercise to speculate, even if our predictions are incorrect.

The following quotes says it better:

Archaeology is the anthropology of the past. Science fiction is the archaeology of the future.” –Joan D. Vinge

Nonetheless, in the spirit of speculation, allow me to put my anthropologist‘s hat and try to predict what future anthropologists may say about us, twenty-first-century people.

And remember, when we do this exercise, as with science fiction authors, we are mostly talking about ourselves in the present than future civilizations.

Imagine, ten centuries into the future, better yet, twenty centuries from now, the year 4022, future archaeologists and anthropologists digging the remains of our civilization.

What would they find?

Moreover, will we be as interesting as the Myceneans and the Maya?

The Plastic Age

plastic landfill image: BBC

Historians and anthropologists love to give names to different eras based on construction materials. Thus, we get the progression from Stone Age to the Bronze, Copper, and Iron Ages, to the Industrial Age, etcetera.

However, as much as we think of ourselves as the electricity age, the nuclear age, or the quantum age, our descendants will rightly refer to us as “the Plastic Age”.

Indeed, they will wonder what is with all the plastic materials, all the plastic containers, as well as all the other synthetic materials we use.

Worse, they may wonder why we built so many disposable objects using non-biodegradable materials?

And if we need further reason to question our common sense, they may wonder why we traded organic fabrics such as cotton and silk for nylon, spandex, rayon, and polyester. Aren’t organic fabrics more comfortable?

image: Christopher Locke’s modern fossils art

We built with cement and burned carbon dioxide into our air. We poisoned our freshwater, our air, and our soil. Worse, we exposed ourselves to radiation. We created so much pollution.

And yet, our descendants’ biggest puzzle will probably be, what is with all the junk?

Whereas ancient civilizations created art, pottery, ceramics, clothing, tools, in other words, useful things.

Meanwhile, all those trinkets and knickknacks, what is their usefulness?  All those stuffed animals, plastic flowers, plastic toys, etc., why?

human fossil holding a cellphone. Image: Imgur

Furthermore, what’s with all the digital reproductions (if any survive)? All those virtual worlds, all the augmented reality, why?

Is our world so devoid of meaning we needed to create fake reproductions and simulations to give it a resemblance of meaning?

In short, why all the artificiality? Why did our civilization reject nature so much?

And with the advent of the metaverse and other virtual worlds, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, NFTs, etc., it seems our world will not just be artificial but immaterial.

Concerned yet?

The Artificiality of the Twenty-First Century

Imperial Rome? Nope, Las Vegas. Image: TripAdvisor

Modernity is artificial. Society itself is nothing but narratives and social contracts and social constructs we all agree upon.

Except, the past century has taken this artificiality to a different level, and it is not just synthetic materials and virtual reality.

The USA is the king of artificial spaces.

Whether is Las Vegas‘ reproductions of ancient Egyptian and Roman architecture, to Disneyland‘s reproductions of the Wild West, 19th-century riverboats, or pirates of the Caribbean rides, the USA excels at artificial spaces.

Not to be outdone, it is known China reproduces Western cities within its borders. Why visit China’s Paris or London when you can visit the real one?

In fact, why play FIFA or Madden when we can play the real sport?

image: Tumblr

When future anthropologists dig through our material remains and make deductions about our culture based on them, they will wonder why our society values so much artificial things.

Why did we consume so much? Why did we pollute so much? Why destroy and drive to extinction when we could have saved and preserved?

The irony is that we love to judge negatively our ancestors and impose our 21st-century values on them. And I don’t need a crystal ball to predict our descendants will judge us as bad, if not worse.

Of course, we can still change course and rewrite our future, today. No anthropology degree is needed; only action.

Reader, how would you predict future scholars will judge us?

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March 2023