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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Brief History Of The Future

(The writer begs your pardon while he briefly pretends that he is Fred Savage on an episode of "The Wonder Years").

So there I was. It was 1977. Jimmy Carter came into office with a big lovable doofus for a brother. I spent my afternoons watching my rhythmically challenged, 18-year-old sister attempt to disco dance. I spent my Friday nights with a couple of guys named Jim Rockford and Quincy (what was that guy’s first name anyway? His first initial was R., but I guess he wished he was like Liberace while solving murders as a coroner).

I was in 5th grade, well on my way to building a perfectly mediocre educational resume (with "Some College" now being used on product surveys as a euphemism for "Community College Dropout"). I went to the school library and checked out a book called 2010:Living In The Future. And what an amazing future we were all to have! I would be 44 years old, leaving my perfect round house (which looked exactly like all the other houses in my neighborhood), getting into my flying car for long trips or staying home to work. My children would be in the other room attending school via television, just like all the other kids in the neighborhood. Colonies would exist on the moon, telephones would be extinct (replaced by videophones of course) and all of the little drawings in the book featured smiling faces. I was hooked. Despite my dad being 45 years old, short and overweight, I couldn’t wait to grow up to get a round house of my very own.

By my current calendar, this is all supposed to happen over the next 757 days, 412 of which will feature George W. Bush as the President of the United States. Revisionist history is nothing. Let’s talk about revisionist futurism.

A common theme of the 20th Century that cropped up, usually at World’s Fairs, in radio serials, movies, television and books, is the absolutely ridiculous and over-optimistic view of the world of the future. Buck Rogers was supposed to be the last traveler on a deep space probe in 1987! Instead, 1987 featured the Iran-Contra Scandal. The television show Space: 1999 featured a moon colony as a backdrop. Instead, 1999 was spent picking up the pieces of the tech bust and discussing the president’s sexual peccadilloes.

We’re not sending humans into deep space to live (and no, the ISS doesn’t count as "deep space"). You can count on one hand the number of people who take their personal helicopter to get to work. School buildings built 50-70 years ago are still being utilized on a daily basis, to say nothing of the house I currently occupy that was built in 1926. Webcams are more commonly used to watch women who are 18 years old and 15 seconds perform sex acts. There are no jetpacks, George Jetson is still a cartoon and people only smile if it’s in their job description. Toto, I’m not in 5th grade anymore.

Thirty years after seeing a fanciful future in a children’s book, I’ve come to realize that the people who see a better world in the future are ridiculously marginalized and sacrificed at the altar of Big Business. Somewhere along the line, the pioneering spirit and engineering intellect inherent in people such as Preston Tucker and R. Buckminster Fuller morphed into third-rate models like Bill Gates, who made a fortune creating a con job of a product which is easily replaced that never truly works exactly as envisioned. In addition, it can be argued that Gates’ product has actually become a barrier to the evolution towards the better functioning world we’ve all envisioned.

I tend to be optimistic by nature. At 41, I still have trouble letting go of daydreams of people existing in an advanced society and getting along. I would hate to think that all of my optimism about the future was instead invested in the idea of making microwave ovens smaller and kitchen counter-friendly. With regard to that childhood vision of the better world of the future, I’ll believe that one when pigs – or cars – fly.

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