I was born in the year 1960. Have you ever had moments of realization when you look back on your childhood and suddenly see how media was shaping your perception of reality? Kind of like finding out that the “food” you’d been eating as part of your “healthy diet” was actually part of a seductively packaged alien plot to incapacitate you so that the aliens could take over the planet? Lately I’ve noticed this around popular assumptions about the future that I grew up with.
I’m referring to the booming period of optimism and faith in human progress after WW2, when new nuclear-age war technologies began to be applied to the public sector marketplace. When cars began to grow fins, and vacuum cleaners and toasters were mass-produced to look like rockets. When “the future” was upon us – “The Space Age,” promising to give us a better world through chemistry. When little kids like me grew up watching the Jetsons, My Favorite Martian, Lost in Space, and Star Trek on black and white TVs. This era was the context of Pixar’s more recent, Toy Story, the era when little boys began to turn their attention from Cowboys and Indians to “the new frontier” – Outer Space!
There is a song that still cracks me up, summing up many of these early 60’s stereotypes about the future. The song’s bad grammar helps make the point, probably more accurately than songwriter Terry Taylor could’ve guessed it would, that human beings are still the same, despite technological advances:
(It’s the Eighties So Where’s Our) Rocket Packs?
I thought by now I’d walk the moon
And ride a car without no tires
And have a robot run the vacuum
And date a girl made out of wires…
I thought by now we’d live in space
And eat a pill instead of dinner
And wear a gas mask on our face
A president of female gender
Though progress marches on (new day)
Our troubles still grow strong
And my expectancies become my fantasies
You turn my blood to sand, the earth stands still again
My hopes are running low
Things moving much too slow
There’s no space men up above
And we’re still far from love…so very far from love
I thought by now we’d build a dome
Around the world, control the weather
In every house a picture phone;
Communicate a little better…
– written by Terry Taylor, 1984, from the album Vox Humana
You have to watch this Youtube video of the song. You must. Asap:
(Click here. Now.)
I thought it might be fun to list a few of the more damaging myopic futuristic assumptions that everyone thought would be so cool. At the time I was completely oblivious to the politics behind them.
Really? Why did anyone think this would be a good idea? Oh, that’s right – because Science has so perfectly grasped how food and the human body works. It is beyond pompous to assume that we can process, refine, chemicalize, and even genetically modify, the food supply and end up with better results than if we eat the stuff that organically grows out of the ground from nutrient-rich soil. (If you can still find any.) Genetically modified corn and soybeans were introduced into the American food supply in 1990s. Since then, food intolerances/allergies to these foods have exploded. ‘Could be just a coincidence. Nevertheless, some 60 plus countries have now banned GM crops. Not in America though. There’s too much money to be made. But don’t worry. After all, it’s only the nation’s FREAKING FOOD SUPPLY.
Many futuristic assumptions forgot to take into account human greed and arrogance. Apparently this was supposed evolve away, or something.
Apart from the nutritional benefits of eating actual food, it is worth noting that preparing food together and sharing a meal with family and friends has always been the quintessential communal act of human existence. Maybe we shouldn’t do away with this in the name of convenience.
Living in Outer Space on a Synthetic Planet
This doesn’t sound fun to me. Maybe for a couple of hours. The reason given for living in space was that the earth was going to become too crowded and polluted. I actually had teachers tell me this. But even as a boy the obvious question seemed to be, “But, couldn’t we just not destroy the earth?”
The Gender Thing
Visions of the future often included a more androgynous society, featuring both women and men wearing matching unitards. Apparently this was supposed to directly equate with equality, as if men and women cannot be equally valued so long as gender and gender roles exist. As if difference must necessarily imply inequality. I think they apply this same strategy in North Korea today, except they don’t use unitards, exactly. No one really knows.
As a little kid I remember seeing an artist’s conception in LIFE magazine about the future. The image contained a line drawing of a man and woman, each wearing only identical striped, bell-bottomed pants. They were the same height, both of their heads were shaved, and they had the same skinny build. The only difference was that the woman had boobs, sort of. (One can only guess at why.) I remember the picture made me cry, because I thought this was what the future would inevitably be like, since it was in LIFE magazine.
In remembering 60′s pop culture I have a hard time coming up with any innate difference between the sexes being celebrated in the future. I can’t think of any futuristic men with beards, (unless they were villains.) I don’t recall seeing a pregnant woman in a futuristic show or movie at all, let alone an image of woman breast-feeding a baby. Eyuu! How primitively human would that be! That would just call to mind all sorts of inequalities and unscientific, subjective feelings. It’s taken decades for breast-feeding advocates to overcome the misperception that breast-feeding is somehow innately less “modern” or less “scientific” than bottle-feeding.
The Procreation Thing
And speaking of babies, in songs and movies it was definitely assumed that this messy, emotional, undignified business of childbirth would somehow be cleaned up in the future. We’d pick babies from a test tube. Fetuses would be grown by scientists in a big tank. We’d be able to pick the gender, eye color, and intelligence of our (probably only) child. As if intelligence is a virtue, apart from good character. (Why does everyone assume their genius child is going to use their intelligence to eradicate disease and hunger? Maybe your genius child will use her intelligence to make weapons of mass destruction and eradicate humanity.)
I’ve been in a number of conversations with pro-legal-abortion-on-demand people who have brought up the idea of an artificial uterus. They seriously hope for this development. This would resolve the issue for them, finally making men and women equal. What is this impulse that pushes us to reject what is most innately human and deeply meaningful about ourselves?
The Inconvenience Thing
The idea of the innate worth and sanctity of all human life necessarily seemed to be on shaky ground in futuristic visions. There were never any people with disabilities, or blindness, or incurable diseases, or old age, in the Future. Why? They’re not there because, well, we will have learned how to fix the human machine by then. At least one hopes that’s why they’re not there.
Much of the futuristic vision seemed to be about overcoming inconveniences, like food preparation, childbirth, children, work, infirmity, and human limitations; the very things that have given shape to the lives of everyone who has ever lived on the planet.
The Work Thing
The idea of a person going to work all day at a job involving physical labor was not futuristic. Even walking more than a few steps was oh-so-20th century. A smiling George Jetson carried a briefcase home from work as the moving sidewalk carried him to his front door.
Of course most labor would be performed by cool-looking robots. Transportation would be akin to a trip the amusement park – everything from personal hovercraft to rocket packs.
Things Missing From the Future:
God, of course. Of course there would be no belief in God in the future because everything would be explained and fixed without Him. And that would make us God. Super convenient! I now assume this was the media industry buying into the “secularization thesis” – the now discredited “Enlightenment” idea that as nations modernize and progress technologically, belief in God will inevitably die out. So surely in the scientific, space-age future, God will have been long gone.
Large Families. Gosh – there’s just something kind of undignified and Stone-Age about large families. And there is that overpopulation thing. It is interesting to note that the nations that are going extinct today, due to a failure to reproduce themselves, (as in Japan and much of Europe,) are also the ones where belief in God has been on the wane for some time.
Not What It Used To Be
In the present day, entertainment media’s conception of the future is very different from that of the 50s and 60s. It is now difficult to find an optimistic view of the future in popular culture. Most movies portray a very seamy, hopeless, barbaric, apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic futuristic vision. Perhaps this is because Science has proved to be an insufficient savior – it has indeed helped us with our technological problems, but not the human problem. The Modernism of the 50s has given way to the Post-modernism of today, which can offer us no transcendent purpose to history.
So what is my point in going back to the 50’s and 60’s portrayal of the Future, besides for the fun of it? I hadn’t noticed until recently how uniform the picture was that was presented to me, even during that innocent era. As pop culture’s vision of the future has grown darker, the picture of the future continues to be quite uniform. The underlying assumptions that guided the optimistic makers of children’s entertainment in the 50s and 60s happen to be remarkably fitting with the same metaphysical and political agenda promoted by the entertainment media today. Secularist values have not really changed – they’ve just lost their luster. People aren’t smiling at the future anymore. It’s the same fascism (for a better world, of course), the same evolutionary materialism, the same confusion about sex, gender, marriage, and family, the same utter lack of any transcendent basis for valuing all of human life, the same repudiation of the most meaningful aspects of what it means to be human.
In the not too distant future, I may or may not produce a children’s book that will set the vision of the future that I grew up with on its head. Set far in the future, in my book these prevailing secularist ideas will be looked upon as backward. Ideas such as food coming from a box, can, tube, or pill will seem funny. The idea that gender is a mere social construct will seem puzzling. What if children grew up with adults pointing out to them that, back when God ceased to exist, human beings ceased to exist as well, becoming merely accidental bundles of chemicals floating through space? What if children grew up convinced of the absolute value of every human being, since all human beings bear the image of a universal Creator who loves them? What if children grew up respecting the unique gender and parenting roles of both men and women? And what if bringing a new life into being were seen as a great privilege, and a valuable responsibility, rather than an inconvenience? I can testify that it would make for a better world.