Burgess predicts life in 2020
Born in 1917, Anthony Burgess would have celebrated his 103rd birthday on 25 February 2020. But what did he think the twenty-first century would be like? It is possible to offer an answer to this question, thanks to a newly-discovered document from the archive.
Back in the mists of 1984, the year when Anthony Burgess was much in demand to write critical essays about George Orwell, he was asked by the editor of the Sunday Telegraph to predict what the world would be like in 2020. The unedited text of this essay, titled ‘2020 Vision’, has recently been identified, as part of the Burgess Foundation’s ongoing project to catalogue its substantial archive of journalism.
Burgess responded to the commission with his usual enthusiasm. Speculating about the possible future of the English language, he writes: ‘A major phenomenon of our time is the division between young and old (which includes the merely older). Those who are young now will not be young in 2020, but they will have carried into the future a deliberate impoverishment of language which is a gross aspect of the so-called counter-culture that will turn into culture itself.’
Assuming that literate culture would have declined by 2020, Burgess predicted that allusions to the Bible or the works of Shakespeare would no longer be meaningful to most readers. He foresaw the end of the classical culture he had come to know through his education in Latin when he was at school and university: ‘There used to be people who were always saying “De mortuis” and “O tempora, O mores” and “of the earth earthy” and “the green-eyed monster” and “the undiscovered bourn” and “pour encourager les autres”. This is now regarded as wholly pedantic even by those who catch the references: we are all becoming a little embarrassed by evidence of learning.’
One other prediction is that speech and communication would have become more fragmented by 2020. Thinking about people who were teenagers in 1984, Burgess writes: ‘Their language is a code and a very limited one, since there is a great limitation of the referents to which it refers: no art, no history, no science […] Their communication is phatic, to use Malinowski’s term, and it can be effected by touch, by the sharing of pop music, by a simple conformity of dress. These young people will inherit the future but will not acquire the language of maturity as we used to know maturity. In 2020 a humane kind of English will hardly exist.’
It is hard to know what caused Burgess to draw such pessimistic conclusions about the future of culture and language. By 1984 his books were selling in large numbers, and the archive shows that he often received letters which told him how much they were valued by young readers. Perhaps the essay voices a secret disappointment with his own stepson, who was 20 years old in 1984 but showed no enthusiasm for higher education or following a career, having been thrown out of a catering college in France.
Be that as it may, one other prediction has the ring of accuracy about it: Burgess says that the nature of writing will have changed beyond recognition by 2020. Paper and pens and typewriters would give way to electronic media. He suggests that ‘the electronic word processor’ will become the dominant technology of literary production: ‘The magical reality has become a set of signs glowing on a screen […] The speed with which words can be set down with such an apparatus, as also with the electronic typewriter, the total lack of muscular effort involved — these turn writing into a curiously non-physical activity.’ Here we might also remember Burgess’s account of composing his early novels on a manual typewriter in Malaya, with sweat dripping down his face and occasionally landing on the page. He had grown up with the assumption that writing was a physical activity which involved vigorous movements and left the writer feeling tired.
There is some optimism to be found in his advice to the novelists and poets of the future: ‘Writers only write well when they listen to what they are writing.’ He urges writers to make use of technology and to listen carefully to the sounds of human speech, which could be captured ‘on magnetic tape’.
The 1984 essay was not the first time that Burgess had written speculatively about the future. His novel The Wanting Seed (1962) imagines a dystopian future in which human burial has been replaced by an eco-friendly system of composting. Couples are limited to a maximum of one child to control the population levels, and fake wars are organised by governments to ensure that orchestrated mass-slaughter keeps the numbers down. But the technology of The Wanting Seed is solidly that of the 1960s: instead of newspapers, the news is delivered each day on vinyl discs, which are played by inserting them into a turntable apparatus mounted in the walls of people’s homes. Most city-dwellers live in high-rise flats, but these were already a reality at the time when Burgess was writing.
Other novels about the future include A Clockwork Orange, set in 1980, in which television programmes are broadcast internationally in simultaneous ‘worldcasts’, and the state has implemented a brainwashing process based on chemical persuasion and aversion therapy. In 1976 Burgess completed Puma, an apocalyptic fantasy about the end of the world. Human civilisation is destroyed by Puma, a rogue planet which enters our solar system and causes sea levels to rise when it floats too close to the earth. Burgess’s futuristic novel is available as part of the Irwell Edition, published by Manchester University Press and edited by Dr Paul Wake.