A world full of real doom

I know you didn’t believe it. And I doubt that more than a tiny fraction of the people who wrote and asked about it actually believed it, even though the hundreds of thousands of websites were posted on the end of the world that came and passed.

When people vote with their feet, we should be wary of explaining something away by reference to their individual psychology
- Ranier Fsadni

The NASA public outreach website – ‘Ask an Astrobiologist’ – received around 5,000 questions over the last five years. All about what to do in view of an interpretation of the Mayan calendar. If the end of the world is nigh, NASA’s Astrobiologist was asked, what should I do? I’m guessing that those who asked whether they should kill themselves, their children or their pets were really interested in killing something else: time.

Modern Mayans themselves were reported to be surprised by the interest and the very interpretation itself, which they didn’t believe.

Taking it seriously was one thing. Some polls suggested that, around the world, some 10 per cent of people took it with some degree of seriousness (although China registered 20 per cent) and eight per cent felt some anxiety.

But then, the chances are that you can always find eight per cent to feel anxiety about anything. And the entrepreneurs of various stripes among us got cracking.

In Brazil, some hotels are used to organising special reservations for ‘prophetic dates’. Some enterprising mayors and local governments went further. They built shelters for survivors and urged stockpiling of food and supplies. In October, a mass suicide of around 100 people was foiled. In Argentina, the Uritorco mountain was closed to sightseers because of a Facebook call for a mass suicide there.

Such incidents would have been tragic. But if we’re asking whether people were really taking it seriously, the numbers behind these events are small.

If we go beyond anxiety and ask about sheer interest, though, then the coverage itself was remarkable. Many have already pointed to the paradox: it took the internet – the most vivid icon of the electronic age – to disseminate the knowledge of the ancient Mayans.

It did more than just generate armchair curiosity. A certain kind of tourism boomed. The Turkish village of Sirince expected to receive some 60,000 visitors on the big day, since some New Ager predicted the village would produce lots of positive energy to weather the catastrophe.

Other places, somehow thought to be sources of positive energy, were beneficiaries of spikes in tourist numbers. (Memo to Minister Mario Demarco: couldn’t we have roped in the megalithic temples as a source of positive energy?)

When people vote with their feet, we should be wary of explaining something away by reference to their individual psychology. There may be something in the general social and cultural conditions, as I believe there is in this case.

In China, the official experts have, apparently, said that the interest shown in the event was due to two factors: a non-scientific mentality and a disbelief in the official state media. I suspect what they meant to say was that the more the official media insist on something, the more anxious people get that the opposite may be true.

My own hunch is that this explanation is only half-true. The media in any particular society if of course salient. It may even account for geographical differences. The state media in one country toning it down emphatically – and triggering some twitches of anxiety in the process – while the private media in other countries hype it up as they ratchet up the infotainment.

But the unscientific mentality thing, that’s what I’m doubtful about. I’m more inclined to believe that the popular culture of science explains a lot of the interest shown.

Predictions of apocalypse do not operate the same way now as they did in agrarian civilisation – whether Mayan, Mesopotamian, medieval Christendom, or what have you. Then, apocalypse was a way of talking about radical change – even social change (‘the coming of the new kingdom’) – in societies where basic change was often gradual; at least in comparison with our kind of society, where radical change is expected.

We have an ironic relationship to end-of-world predictions. We savour them to get a taste of what the world might have been like to peoples who didn’t know better. We are well aware – and the information is there to remind us – of the various predictions that just didn’t happen.

But some of us want to enjoy the experience. And why not make a trip of it? Experience tourism at its best. You can report to your friends that, for Christmas, you visited a cult…

It’s our modern consciousness that helps us savour the experience, not an unscientific mentality. We couldn’t know of these events without an army of archaeologists doing serious work of interpretation, an army of journalists, freelance writers and cultural entrepreneurs doing serious work of misinterpretation, and an army of bloggers to spread the lot.

Scientists are always there to remind us that, strictly speaking, statistical laws exclude nothing. There is an infinitesimal statistical chance that water might freeze if you boil it. Likewise, that an alignment of planets might create the conditions to suck us up a black hole – and New Age mystics are always around to tell us that their ideas are aligned not just with the planets but with science.

Our world is full of real doom just round the corner. Talking about Mayan predictions is the luxury we treat ourselves to: a doom we can afford to be ironic about.

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