“The Future is already here…”

(Photo by Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images)

So says William Gibson, the American author who followed his wife to her native Vancouver and from there has spun out his tales of the near future—from Neuromancer (1984) to Agency (to be released next week). Gibson decades ago coined the term “cyberspace,” and his cyberpunk stories inspired, among many other artistic offspring, “The Matrix” films.

Gibson is certainly not a futurist—that dubious profession, so exciting just a few decades ago, that proffered prognostications that already have turned out no more likely to be true than those of a carnival fortune-teller. In fact he isn’t, for a science-fiction writer, all that oriented toward the future…or, at least, not one far, far away. No, Gibson says, “the future is already here. It’s just that it isn’t very evenly distributed.”

Gibson is the Tom Wolfe of the future among us. He sees that the future doesn’t arrive all at once in packages shipped all from the same store—as it seemed to do in “The Jetsons,” or “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or “Star Trek.” It comes piece by piece: the huge flat screen TV hung above the bookcase, the microwave sitting on the counter beside the toaster.

Herders, who a generation ago rode camels and mules, now blow up tanks and bring down airliners. Young hackers hold the files of blood laboratories for hostage while teenagers can’t do enough mental math to make change at a Tim Hortons. Australia burns while Vancouver can’t handle a big snowfall. This is a William Gibson future.

That’s how large-scale change comes: incrementally and unevenly. It’s one centimeter of ocean rise, one higher degree of temperature, one new drug-resistant ‘flu, one new civil war in a place we can’t easily find on a map. It’s electric cars smoothly humming past beggars pushing rackety shopping carts. 

Big changes might seem to have appeared all at once in the past, but that’s the illusion of large-scale time: all the mountains on the horizon look the same distance away. Change that took years, decades, even centuries, seems to us to have evolved overnight.

A recent profile of Gibson in The New Yorker gloomily asserts that we live now in “a Gibsonian apocalypse: the end of the world is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And there is much to bemoan and to fear.

The Atlantic offers hope, nonetheless, in its December 2019 number as author after author promotes positive change particularly in regard to the multiple vexed challenges of contemporary American politics. And author after author reiterates that that hope can be realized only by many slow steps, not through single revolutions. It in fact took many such steps to get us into this situation, and it will take many to get us out.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” taught Laozi in the Dao De Jing. And Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is like that: like a small seed that only eventually becomes a huge plant, like a bit of leaven that has to be worked through the whole lump of dough.

New Testament professors have taught us the phrase “already, but not yet” to speak of the “age to come” as in fact already here, inaugurated by Jesus, but not yet fully realized. Yes, we Christians believe that Jesus will eventually return dramatically to sort things out once for all. But it’s also clear that he expects us to make a good start at it now, since the Kingdom of God is (already) within us.

So, to borrow another phrase, let’s be the change we want to see in the world: step by step, day by day.

Let’s be the future that is already here, just not very evenly distributed.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).