Essays on Technology and Culture

Apocalyptic Thinking

Two years ago, you may recall a bit of hubbub from a group of people convinced that the end of the world was at hand, and that it would happen May 21st, 2011. There were enough believers to generate human interest news stories, particularly about the followers of this apocalyptic belief who took it to heart, quit their jobs, sold or gave away their possessions, and went out to spread the message of impending doom. In a way, you can’t blame them. If the world really was going to end, and soon, what’s the point in keeping up the rut? It’s a bit liberating to know that all the things keeping you from doing what you really want to do are going to go away, along with everything else. It frees you from responsibilities.

It seems that there are two ways of dealing with an apocalyptic threat. One is resignation, and one is panic, which can turn into resignation once the adrenaline runs out. I speak in absolutes here, because an apocalypse is an absolute concept. It is the end. Few things in life are truly apocalyptic in scope, but our minds can twist something that is happening, or may happen, into a problem of apocalyptic proportions beyond which there is nothing. At least, nothing worth thinking about. If you’re saying that this is not true, you’re not the sort who views things in the apocalyptic mindset, and perhaps this essay isn’t for you.

Apocalyptic thinking can permeate our lives. Any time something has even the potential to change, drastically, people can—and will—pull the Chicken Little routine, and claim the sky is falling. In the technology world, we see this any time a beloved app or service is bought out. [1] Mac power users scream when the idea of integrating elements of iOS with the Mac is brought up. Certain technology pundits have built a career out of this stuff. Some of this is grounded in reality. If you’re a dedicated user of Astrid, for example, the sky is actually falling. But, it’s not like you can’t actually do anything about it. There’s no shortage of other services and tools we can switch to, including some that aren’t going to just disappear or be abandoned.

That’s the real problem with apocalyptic thinking: it prevents action. As long as you’re stuck in the apocalyptic mindset that it’s the end, and it’s too big for you to deal with… well, it won’t be dealt with. In many cases, once the threat has passed, we can see it for what it is with only a bruise to our ego to mark the damage. So many of our tiny apocalypses aren’t worth the mental stress and strain we give them. It takes a forced shift of perspective to make this clear. Whatever apocalypse is on your radar, whatever you see that will bring the end, chances are it’s not as far out of your control as you think.

  1. Even Marco’s sale of the beloved Instapaper to Betaworks spawned more than a couple frustrated Tweets and App.Net… statuses? We need a better term.  ↩