The millennium toast

A recent poll to identify this century’s most significant object has thrown up some surprising candidates, giving Janice Kirkpatrick an attack of millennium angst.

Every publication, every programme and every venue will host millennium reviews over the next year in the hope of distilling the essence of the 20th century. All minds are becoming focussed on the quest for self-discovery, the answer to the question of life and its meaning – the holy grail.

Why? Because we’ve almost dissected the chemistry of life and transcended our religious and traditional notions of how the world was created. We’ve debunked our gods through understanding how life works and become gods ourselves.

We seem to believe that if we hold this strange brew, “eau de C20th”, in its test tube, up to the light, we’ll see what modern life is all about. The truth is, modern life is a municipal tip, a melting pot of lust and junk and the factories, television channels and muddled brains that churn it out in ever increasing volumes.

Like hoarding hamsters and covetous aunts we accumulate acres of detritus and a few truly useful objects. But the flotsam and jetsam forms a corollary of half-revealed, half-conscious wants and needs, which are just as important as the few fully formed thoughts that crystallise into seminal objects. Our self-made universe defies definition, but categorically tells us who we are.

Modern life is an ever morphing, ever mounting litter of confusing possibilities that echo the chaos in our heads and reveal the current state of human evolution. We need the mess in order to have one clear thought and one quantum leap. So much of modern life is rubbish.

Humans have thousands of thoughts every waking minute. Most of these thoughts are pretty awful, some are best kept private and very few, say, two a day, are seriously worthy of beasts at the top of evolutionary pile – beasts who are creating ways to bravely conquer new worlds.

Archeologists can tell us more about how we lived from a rash of commonplace artefacts than they can from one priceless showpiece find. Scratches and scribbles like the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphics and the Dead Sea Scrolls give detailed information about human cultures long gone. Words are essential in mapping our motivation. Words make us edit our thoughts as we commit ink to paper and our voices to a digital after life. Spoken and written language helps objects to sing.

As we accelerate towards next year’s Hogmany the general public will be asked which objects they would choose so as to encapsulate the fastest century in the history of the world. It will be interesting to see what they choose and how their selections will then be presented.

For me, the words and context more eloquently tell how we live and what we believe in. The few really worthwhile objects are the exceptions, they are the icing on the cake and a point of destination. It’s the boring sponge, the process and the journey which forms 99 per cent of life in the 20th century that we need to understand more about. We need to know how we think and create and how to be more productive. We need to be better at identifying the clues that will lead us forward to a better world.

In a recent poll, taken by the National Museum of Scotland through the press, choices were revealed ranging from breast pumps and Hickman Shunts to toast. Toast? Six people actually believe that toast is the overwhelming object of the 20th century.

Although toast may not boast cutting edge technology, its selectors tell of family mornings at the breakfast table, the politics of food production, genetically engineered wheat and jam – a perfect micro-encapsulation of modern life and the often petty, domestic claustrophobia that envelopes it.

Toast may not be spaceship engineering or the chemistry of life, but it may be closer to revealing a truth about a 20th century which has become introspective and, frankly, rather dull.

After all, we have almost mapped and dissected the world, so, what challenges are left for us? What will help us to lift our souls and minds above the kitchen sink?

All millennium reviews must have people at their heart. It’s human interaction and the strange needs and desires that give rise to objects and networks and the connections that shape all of the rubbish in our vast, revolving tip.

Modern life may well be mostly rubbish, but, it’s life, Jim, and life as we know it.

Latest articles