TCS Daily


I Miss the Future

By Bob Newbell - June 27, 2005 12:00 AM

The wry observation that the future ain't what it used to be has been variously attributed to baseball legend Yogi Berra, French poet Paul Valery, and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Whoever said it spoke the truth. "[F]or us," wrote Yale University professor David Gelernter in the epilogue of his 1995 book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, "the future no longer exists. We can talk about it when we are asked to. We conjure it into being, examine it and then it slips away."

The future wasn't always so ephemeral. It used to be pretty well-defined in the American collective consciousness. That the future would take place in outer space was a foregone conclusion. Whether it was in the movies or in the pages of a pulp magazine or comic book or on television, space was the new frontier and America was going to blaze a trail across it just as it had in the Old West. The names changed from one generation to the next. Captain Buck Rogers. Commander Buzz Cory. Captain James T. Kirk. It didn't really matter.

Neither did the science -- or lack thereof -- really matter. We all accepted that rocketships would make aerobatic maneuvers in space and that ray-guns would somehow, well, work. Apparel likewise presented no problem. Comic book "astronauts" who dressed like pirates and mini-skirted space damsels were de rigueur.

There was more: Household chores would be performed by domestic robots. Flying cars would speedily transport people from one streamlined city to another. For shorter jaunts, a rocket belt would suffice. The world would be powered by nuclear, or, as it was then called, "atomic" power that would be "too cheap to meter."

Future visions weren't always pleasant. The 20th Century's three great dystopians -- Zamiatin, Huxley, and Orwell -- imagined politically nightmarish futures. There were also tales of nuclear annihilation and, of course, invasions from other worlds. But by and large these were projections of Cold War anxieties, clearly related to, yet also distinctive from, the otherwise optimistic consensus future that occupied the popular imagination in America.

It was around the 1960s that the benign vision of tomorrow began to crumble. The future has always been an extrapolation of the present, and "the present" of the 1960s -- with its social pathologies, relativistic morals and lack of civic confidence -- could not but affect our notion of the shape of things to come. A generation later, the future increasingly became a dilapidated, hopeless place as depicted in the 1982 movie "Blade Runner" and in William Gibson's seminal bestseller Neuromancer.

The inauguration of the Reagan era restored America's confidence in itself, but the future never really recovered its old vigor. The flying car became the SUV. The personal robot ended up bolted to the floor of an automobile plant, leaving us to wash our own clothes and make our own beds. While certainly adventurous and heroic, the astronauts were government functionaries, not latter-day Columbuses or Marco Polos exploring with autonomy. It may be just as well. Our naively romantic conception of the solar system with a Sahara-like Mars and a jungle-clad Venus are long abandoned. The other planets, as one scientist has observed, range from dead to murderous.

The books and movies and television productions about the future have continued, but they seem to be little more than retellings of the same storylines, and they no longer inspire. I have noticed a burgeoning sub-genre of "alternative history" by authors such as Harry Turtledove. With the well of ideas about the future having seemingly run dry, authors now imagine how the past might have been different.

My distress is not limited to the lack of both imagination and optimism about what tomorrow may hold. I am at the age when the future starts to become increasingly personal. My blood pressure and cholesterol are rising. I fret over my investments and wonder about my retirement. I am insured against disability and death to the clich├ęd "worth more dead than alive."

It seems silly to me that a well-educated professional who is now entering middle age should invest so much emotional and intellectual capital in antiquated visions of tomorrow. But it is disheartening to think that the present -- yesterday's tomorrow -- could come no closer than this to the grand future they imagined. Twenty-four hours of high-definition, 600 channel, televised drivel. Manned space travel that is infrequent, dangerous, expensive, boring, and limited to low-Earth orbit. Cell phones that allow people to publicly share conversations both trivial and intimate.

Silly or not, I miss the future.

Bob Newbell is a medical doctor. This is his first article in TCS.

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