Meet George Jetson; Jane, his wife.
Their deluxe apartment in the sky, you must admit, boasts quite the view. Rockets whiz past condos the shape of flying saucers. Stars flutter and flicker, and below the clouds are frozen like rivers.
Tonight’s another of George and Jane’s keycard parties. Pretty swingin’. Cosmonauts show off their ray guns to space oddities, Judy’s spiked the Tang, and a couple of Miss Solar System runners-up are busy moving plastic couches this way and that, tugging on unitard sleeves, trying to get everybody dancing the Saturn Snug. Be sure to grab a food pill or trans-dermal nutrient patch when the robot maid rolls by. Dig that theremin on the hi-fi. Plenty of futurific fun to be had, here in the 21st century.
Or not. The actual 21st century, our 21st century, has been—not to be put too fine a point on it—a real clusterfuck. As the weather gets weirder, it’s become obvious that the Space Age 60’s and the Mac Age 80’s were less prescient than the Silent Spring 70’s. Like kids outgrowing Santa Claus, we’ve spent the past seven miserable years learning to stop dreaming about the World of Tomorrow.
Why would we? In the continued absence of solar-paneled jetpacks, plutonium-powered time machines or even fully electric (forget flying) cars, most of us still arrive at our still-earthbound offices via that great marvel of 1904, the subway. Which rarely gets faster, cleaner, cheaper or more frequent, but instead everyday further erodes, like the ruins at Troy.
The news isn’t any better above ground: bypass the retro clothes, society dopes and Visigoth frat brothers flooding the gates, and just look at the hole still sitting at Ground Zero—and the monolithic monstrosity we’d like to fill it with—for definitive proof that the cultural capital of the world hasn’t managed to keep its imagination running, that we’ve sputtered to a stop.
Americans have always assumed that one day we’d awaken in our utopian future, like tourists at Disney World wandering happily from Frontierland into Tomorrowland. We envisioned it in books, in movies, on TV, in bedtime stories. But we took the future for granted, as if it were a wife. And maybe it escaped this neglectful marriage, changed its name and skipped town.
The Space Age expired before we were permanently freed from gravity, pessimism and solid foods. But that was just Plan A. Plan B—and it was a pretty good second choice—was Dystopian Nightmare, which we hoped would closely resemble Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video. They were always a matched set of luggage—utopia and dystopia, the populuxe silver briefcase and the black leather duffel—and we just weren’t sure which trip we were going to take.
We haven’t even advanced enough for our favorite old worst-case scenarios: 1984 came and went long ago, and our computers don’t seem any closer to revolt. We still settle disputes in the jury system, rather than the Thunderdome.
On that faded old VHS of 1982’s Blade Runner, our long dark noir of the soul’s already well underway in 2019. Shoot. If we’re going to meet that deadline, the next 12 years would have to be spent covering over a chunk of the earth with nuclear winter and colonizing nearby planets, not to mention inventing Daryl Hannah–looking, electric-sheep-dreaming androids and the economic and political systems to oppress them with. And we’re just not that ambitious.
Novelist William Gibson, that coiner of “cyberspace,” the Kipling of the Internet Age, was altogether too clever to commit his cyberpunk sci-fi to any particular date. But console cowboys, razorgirls and god-like A.I.’s don’t sit around Rastafarian-run space stations, listening to dub, the glow of the earth below instead of a lava lamp to light their way. And Google me a corner of the Internet where just logging on looks like this:
“Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding—and flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity.”
You’ll protest that our Information Age has surpassed the best of Gibson’s books, and that his hackers have evolved, like ape into man, into the bloggers who type chattily away all day, who unlock their own secrets before anyone has a chance to break into them. There’s more data available on some failed relationships than the reconstruction of Iraq. Foodies can trade pictures of meals like baseball cards. Pornography produced on a sunny day in the Valley can be instantly procured to warm one up in the darkest Arctic winter.
Each of us will have had our Platonic dialogues, on message boards and wikis, via text or I.M. But will we end up just like Socrates? Frittering away every night procrastinating and bullshitting around the fire? Dead at our own hand, without our Republics built?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Americans seem more excited by the end of our Republic than the birth pangs of any better ones. At least dystopian visions of the future presume that we keep advancing and advancing—just in the wrong direction. In the years since Sept. 11, this country has been acting like one huge support group for suicide cases.
On prime time, in multiplexes and bookstores, you’ll find apocalypses aplenty: enough raptures, freaks of nature, human errors, alien invasions, diplomatic crises, terrorist acts and deus ex machinas to assure you that, don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.
In The Day After Tomorrow, it’s an ice age that consumes Manhattan in a matter of hours. In 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, it’s zombies eager to eat your face off. In War of the Worlds, it’s close encounters of the worst kind. In Children of Men, it’s a Biblical plague of infertility. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it’s a conflagration of unknown origin that burns away everything but whatever bits of Mad Max that Mr. McCarthy managed to sit through. In Danny Boyle’s upcoming Sunshine, it’s the dying sun. In 24, it’s been, well, damn near everything, but the highlights include deadly viruses, nerve gas, Presidential coups and at least two nuclear explosions.
This has been mistaken for a religious fervor, but it’s exactly the opposite. There is, in these eschatologies, more of an anxiety about our own achievements’ than about God’s wrath. It’s not fear of a fickle, happy-to-send-a-great-flood-at-any-time Yahweh, but a deep panic about ourselves. And so we approach modernity, science, technology like addicts do their drugs—worrying that what makes our lives easier, livable, worthwhile is killing us slowly, then quickly.
The visionaries of late capitalism—lucky for the shareholders—have gotten pretty good at playing on all our mixed feelings. They know that no matter how much we like to hear about radical change, new world orders or the next big thing, we mostly just want our most trivial, domestic desires well met. So every new gadget, or iPod, or ringtone is sold as the Bolshevik overthrow of the czar. Which is why an alleged utopianist like, say, Steve Jobs devotes himself to beautiful baubles, as if a Fabergé Egg for every consumer was the closest any of us could expect to the shining city on a hill.
We shouldn’t expect Marxism of our moguls, but how about some can-do spirit? For a point of comparison, try plugging “Walt Disney’s Plan for Epcot” into YouTube. He actually wanted to build his own real-life Magic Kingdom enclosed safely under a giant bubble, given over to green spaces, pedestrian pathways and electric trains. For his residents—mostly his own employees, natch—there would be no property ownership, allowing Disney to sneak into homes and replace all the appliances with better, more modern designs anytime he liked. Disney knew that any community of the future worth its futurism needed constant upgrading.
It’s fascism, sure, but of a dreamy, earnest, adorable sort. At least Disney’s plan for Epcot began with the assumption that the future must be worked at, not just waited for at the station, like it’s some out-of-town guest coming in on the next train. Where’s today’s Disney imagineering a Better Tomorrowland?
Instead, our economy seems steered by those who would rather squeeze the last life out of the status quo than make money as the innovators and tycoons of whatever’s next. It begs the question: Was there a Bronze Lobby—Big Bronze?—that tried to prevent the transition to the Iron Age?
Everyone’s complicit. Ours is the New York of greenmarkets, of boomers in designer glasses wandering the farmers’ stalls, fondling fruits and sourcing proteins, like they’re Tuscan peasant grandmothers. Buying carefully and locally is a fine solution to our shitty stewardship of the planet, but it’s also a kind of denial, a retreat into centuries past, as if we can take a Mulligan and the industrial revolution and 20th century can be played over like a couple holes of golf. Progress not having lived up to all the hype, we’ll try regress instead.
Those Luddites who haven’t yet tossed out their flat screens should adore CBS’s post-apocalyptic Jericho, which returns tonight after a winter hiatus. The show is an ode to Mayberry Utopianism: 17 nukes across the country might pretty much decimate the United States, but a small Kansas town will remain virtually untouched. It’s Lassie, except instead of kids falling down wells, millions die in the war on terror. The fallout’s done wonders for the sunsets.
And sure, the beer taps in the local bar are just ornamental now, but the patrons all grimly and gratefully sip the moonshine from the still out back. And every night, no-longer-estranged families sit down around the table together, say grace, and dig into their meals of hastily harvested corn, boiled well water and canned soup. Everyone’s happier than the pilgrims at the First Thanksgiving.
Starting over from scratch: That’s the new utopia, a Republic of Second Chances. Daydreaming flu pandemics, asteroid strikes or all-out zombie attacks is significantly easier than hoping for some new Robert Moses with the vision, time and inclination to re-engineer our Manhattan into The Jetsons. Who will dig up our fossilizing subways and tear down our lovely prewar buildings and build us an Orbit City where enlightened astronauts pilot their ecologically sound flying saucers between the flowering rooftop gardens of gleaming white skyscrapers? Besides, all the Fountainhead types are too busy reducing their carbon footprints.
Nowadays, everyone just wants to play a shepherd in their own pastoral poem. So let’s all grow beards, learn to fish, find rivers far away from one another to sit down beside and wait. Don’t worry. We won’t be Amish.
We’ll come up out of the woods and amble up through the high grass toward our little house about the size of an Ikea kitchen cabinet. The Fresh Direct truck will be idling noisily and wastefully outside, ready with our order: Bentzy’s almond slices and Vanns rubbed sage for the fresh-caught trout; vegetable-medley hobo packets on the side; some fair-trade coffee for the morning; maybe an organic syrah for tonight. The solar panels on the roof will keep the PowerBook powered while this week’s Lost downloads. We’ll live like castaways. We’ll do no harm.
Tomorrow will come, eventually.