Sunday, 9 December 2012


Here's something I wrote for a 2012 collection which never happened. I thought it was high time to publish it.

2012 - or 12,012?

We all desire something from the Singularity. Conditioned into instant gratification by consumerist culture, we want to believe that  the mere quantitative - a date on a calendar promoted by Pope Gregory in 1582 - will deliver real qualitative change. So, disappointed by the Millennium, which didn't even manage to crash all the world's computers, we reach out for 2012. Like kids writing 'Dear Father Christmas' letters, we hope that something we haven't contributed to will provide a quick fix to global problems and rescue us from our mass folly.
Rather than hold our collective breath until the unknown rescues us, why not take the situation in hand, and create something new instead. Let's mark 2012 with a new calendar, a new system of numbering the years.

When we study any history before the past 2000 years, it looks messy. The years before 1 CE are arranged to present a run-up, all the nonsense that occurred before that date relegated to preparing the world for the advent of the Christian god. Or that's what it looks like, when we consider that Plato lived his life backwards, from around 427 to 347 BCE.
The 'AD' designation is somewhat improved by 'CE', or the Latin Thelemic variant 'EV' (Era Vulgaris) - but this doesn't go far enough. To call the last 2000 years just the 'common era' is almost an admission of defeat - we eliminate the reference to Year of Our Lord, but we still leave his supposed birth year as our temporal baseline.
This produces a skewing of history; it is as if Bishop Usher were right, and the time before JC was relatively short, and only significant as an introductory chapter to the narrative of a god's incarnation.
So how can we change the dating system?

One possibility is to date everything in reverse, like we do for geological and cosmic events; it makes sense to say that the Solar System was formed four and a half billion years ago, rather than at just-under-4.5bn BCE. But it makes a dog's breakfast of any other scale of history. For a start, everyone's lives would run backwards, and it would be a swine of a job renumbering all the important historical dates every year. So we need a forward-counting year system for most historical purposes.
The next question is obviously: Where do we start our new forward-count from? A sensible answer would be: From a time before most of what we study historically. Recorded history starts about 5000 years ago, with the development of cuneiform, the oldest known script. The period 5300 to 2500 years ago brackets the oldest known civilizations - early Egyptian hieroglyphs, pre-dynastic China, the Indus Valley cities. Archaeology pushes the origins of these civilizations back a few more centuries. Going back somewhat further, we collide with the last Ice Age. Any civilizations that existed before that have been ground to dust by glaciers or submerged in the flooding that came with the retreat of the ice. The current Interglacial Period is generally taken as starting about 11,000 years ago. This figure approximates to the round figure of 9,000 BCE. An even rounder figure, much easier to work with, would be to take our starting point for historical dating as 10,000 BCE*.   

That would be in the old system; I propose the Interglacial (IG) dating system, in which we add 10,000 to all the years in the old system, counting BCE dates as negative and subtracting them from 10,000.
Here's how a few historical events would look in Interglacial (IG) dating:
Catal Hoyuk earliest finds                                    2500 IG
British Isles separate from rest of Europe            3900 IG
Pre-dynastic Badarian culture, Egypt              4500-6000 IG
Sumer, agriculture                                                4700 IG
West Kennet Longbarrow                                    6500 IG
Oetzi the Iceman                                                  6700 IG
Indus Valley civilization earliest findings            6700 IG 
Stonehenge earth bank and ditch                         6900 IG
Egypt, pyramid of Khufu completed                   7520 IG
Beaker People                                                  7600-8200 IG
China, Zhou dynasty begins                               8055 IG
Hallstadt culture from                                         9200 IG           
Socrates                                                       ca. 9520-9601 IG
Traditional date of founding of city of Rome     9247 IG
Saul of Tarsus invents new religion                 ca. 10,040 IG
Earliest known sequential Futhark                   ca. 10,400 IG
Invention of poured steel                                    11,742 IG
Invention of the computer                                11,941-44 IG

This system has advantages both practical and cultural. It does away with all that silly BCE reverse dating and the removal of that 2000-year ago discontinuity would place the story of Christianity in a more balanced perspective, rather than something which squats astride the whole of history. It would be easier to implement than any other calendar reform I've heard of, and I think it would stimulate interest in ancient history: dating our current civilization from the end of the last Ice Age would give us a sense of being embedded in greater cycles of time. 'Negative dates' would take on a whole new meaning - things that happened before the ice retreated - and this should benefit research into long lost eras.

So how do we start?

* This would place our Year 1 in the throes of the Ice Age, but that is no problem.


  1. There's a lot going for 10,000 BCE as a new reference point. It roughly coincides with the origins of sedentary living and agriculture, which is the beginning of 99.9999% of our current world.

    Well, 99.9999% in simple terms - there is of course a really interesting debate about what may have been preserved in our software/wetware from hunter-gatherer times. Thinking about that, it's tempting to argue for a reference point coincident with the advent of the species - but that's pretty impractical.

    Given global culture, I think the only opportunities for installing a new collective dating system will be otherwise terrible to go through - totalitarianism or collapse. But it seems to be healthy to have some considered options in any case - at the very least, the thinking contributes to stopping our sense of history from ossifying too much.

    Not got the copy I've ordered yet, but I'm looking forward to this:

    "When does history begin? What characterizes it? This brilliant and beautifully written book dissolves the logic of a beginning based on writing, civilization, or historical consciousness and offers a model for a history that escapes the continuing grip of the Judeo-Christian time frame. Daniel Lord Smail argues that in the wake of the Decade of the Brain and the best-selling historical work of scientists like Jared Diamond, the time has come for fundamentally new ways of thinking about our past. He shows how recent work in evolution and paleohistory makes it possible to join the deep past with the recent past and abandon, once and for all, the idea of prehistory. Making an enormous literature accessible to the general reader, he lays out a bold new case for bringing neuroscience and neurobiology into the realm of history."

    I love the idea of getting rid of "prehistory", and bringing that huge bulk of our time as foragers into the fold.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts Gyrus, seems like a few people are interested in the IG dating idea.
    And that book looks very interesting - opening up the gulfs of deep time makes the present seem less of a prison.