Regulars and Shorts

Outside the Box: Informational Armageddon

By Alice Toler

Take time out for the End Times.
by Alice Toler


The apocalypse has always made good print. When I was about 12 years old, I read Isaac Asimov’s A Choice of Catastrophes. I was always a high-strung kid and worried about nuclear warfare and environmental degradation at an early age, but this book had a bit of an incongruous effect: reading about all the ways the world could end actually made me feel better about things. I just couldn’t get hung up on the menace of thermonuclear war when a giant space rock could sterilize the planet just as easily and many times as arbitrarily.

Turns out I haven’t been the only one obsessed with the apocalypse. Over the millennia, it’s been quite a cottage industry to foretell the end of the world; in my almost-39 years on the planet, I’ve lived through more apocalypses than I can remember, and certainly more than I’ve been aware of. Wikipedia lists 68 forecast apocalypses since 1974. I’ve survived two foretold by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, two by Pat Robertson, one each by Nostradamus, Isaac Newton, Edgar Cayce, Jerry Falwell and Louis Farrakhan, and four by Christian radio personality Harold Camping, whose faded “Cry mightily unto God” billboards still stand at various remote locations along I-80 after the world failed to end twice in 2011.

And so this month we are faced with yet another apocalypse, as the Mayan long-count calendar resets with the end of the 13th b’ak’tun. A b’ak’tun is a period of 144,000 days (394 years), and at the end the date rolls over to zero again, like the odometer on an old Chevy. There is some disagreement as to whether the five-digit date rolls over at the end of 13 b’ak’tuns or 20 b’ak’tuns. If the latter, we won’t be resetting the Mayan long-count date until October 13, 4772. So why the fuss about the 13th b’ak’tun? The Mayans themselves seem as unfazed by the prospect of the numbers rolling over as we are by the transition from December 31 to January 1. It’s a reason to celebrate, but there’s nothing inherently apocalyptic about it.

Thank ethnobotanist Terence McKenna for at least some of the uproar. McKenna explored the Colombian Amazon searching for entheogenic preparations used by local tribes there, and was an enthu­siastic proponent of psychedelic research. During the 1970s he developed the concept of Novelty Theory, which attempted to explain the observed increase of interconnectedness and complexity in the universe around us by positing a “teleological attractor” at the end of time. Using the date of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as the basis for calculating when the end of time would occur, McKenna came up with a date of November 16, 2012, “at which point anything and everything imaginable will occur simultaneously.” When McKenna found out that his forecast date was only five weeks before the end of the 13th b’ak’tun, he revised his calculations because he decided that the Maya were probably more likely to be correct on the subject.

So far, so esoteric. So what about the planet Nibiru, said to be on a collision course with our own? Or the galactic alignment that will apparently pull Earth’s tectonic plates apart and cause a volcanic cataclysm? Or the aliens waiting in their warships quietly undetected above our planet, ready for their big entry cue? Or the sudden reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field that will destroy human civilization? Sorry to say, there is no evidence for the imminence of any of these catastrophes. We are living in troubling times, to be sure. Life flows around us at a tremendous pace, and our brains are still better evolved for hunting and gathering than they are for navigating rush hour traffic. Who hasn’t secretly wanted the aliens to land and take us off the hook for our next mortgage payment?

Even though the complexity of human existence is indeed increasing at a fever pitch, linear time as we experience it on a daily basis most probably will not end on December 21. McKenna was on to something, but it wasn’t a cataclysm. It might have been an “apocalypse” in the oldest sense of the word, which originally meant “unveiling.” What’s being uncovered is the inherent ridiculousness of expecting a person to live at the pace of information. Back when most information moved as fast as the horse or even the automobile, it was possible to trade chunks of our physical and mental wellbeing to move ourselves through our lives as fast as the culture was urging us to go. These days, the sane among us can only laugh at the idea, because immeasurably huge amounts of information are directed at each one of us through wires and airwaves at the speed of light. Just like no physical body can move at the speed of light, no flesh-and-blood brain can keep up with the flood of information.

It’s not a physical Armageddon, but an informational one.

But who says you have to play that game? At the close of the 13th b’ak’tun, instead of expecting the “end of time,” why not celebrate taking time back into your own hands? Let go of the idea that you have no worth unless you are busy. Productivity is overrated, and happiness gets shorted. Go for a slow walk in the park today, or just take an extra hour in bed. The world won’t end if you relax, and the aliens don’t mind waiting.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2012.