June 1st, 2004

Whatever Happened To The Future?

(This feature appeared in the first edition of Sour Mash magazine)

So what happened? It’s the 21st Century already. We’ve docked in the future. And it’s not what we were promised. We were given to believe that life would be a little more space-age than this – from the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900 and its rolling pavements, to the prototype robots patented at numerous American trade fairs over the decades, to the jet packs showcased in Thunderball, to the hovercars and intergalactic travel confidently foreseen in the likes of Flash Gordon and Space 1999. As Seinfeld’s George Costanza, that squat little mass of human frustration, put it, “we could be zipping about all over the place!”

Instead, we’ve been denied. Denied also domestic robots, all-silver jumpsuits, timeshares on the moon, cryonics, capsule-sized three-course meals and 3-D chess and strangely superfluous glass helmets. Were the comic strip writers lying to us? Or was there a lack of will on the part of the scientific establishment to put the fine ideas mooted above into practice? Did they think it would just, like, happen and get lazy?

As well as being denied, however, we’ve also been spared a great many things – at least, for the time being. Spared the radioactive landscapes following the nuclear holocausts which erudite political commentators mournfully assured us were absolutely inevitable by the Eighties or Nineties. Spared the ice age faithfully promised by scientist Steven Schneider back in the Seventies. Spared the global famines predicted by that most spectacularly off-the-mark of Jeremiahs Paul Ehrlich. Spared also the drying up of the world’s gas and petroleum supplies, which the Club of Rome projected would occur by 1993. Orwell’s 1984 proved not to be a horrific vision of things to come but a futurist relic now almost completely strip-mined for ideas for second-rate TV shows, from Room 101 to Big Brother. (Wonder, incidentally, how many copies of 1984 were sold in 1985?)And, while the present incumbent of the White House might suggest otherwise, Homer Simpson’s primary fear of the future – that apes would be our masters – hasn’t materialised either.

Instead, what have we got? Grass. Fishmongers. Paul McCartney. Seaside towns. Astronauts dying, forgotten, of old age. Bob Monkhouse still on television. Prince Phillip. Repeats of Hi-De-Hi and The Good Life. Banjos. Powdered custard. It’ll Be All Right On The Night 38. It’s the future all right but it feels more like the present. Could be worse but could be better. And dirt. Still with the dirt, a component the futurists of the last century, from fantasists to town planners always imagined would somehow be magicked away, like the stain-resistant fabric devised by Alec Guinness’s boffin in the Ealing comedy The Man In The White Suit. They assumed that at some point a clean break would literally be made between now and Years To Come, that absolute hygiene would be a given, that the gleaming, curvaceous, chrome-plated new world would bear absolutely no traces of the old world, or of waste products. It’s a fallacy perpetuated in the flyless trousers of the Star Trek crew to the idyllic blueprints of Sixties towerblocks with their whitewashed and convenient underpasses. Neither factored piss into their equations.

Perhaps the real reason we haven’t been granted the future we were promised is not just that it was unfeasible but also undesirable. Take jetpacks and hovercars. Imagine the former as a vehicular feature of everyday life – the clouds of vapour from the hydrogen peroxide fuel belching wastefully from your heels as you roared out to purchase a pack of 20 Rothmans. Imagine also, your expanding circumference as walking was reduced to a former evolutionary biped phase and we ballooned into fat, lazy bubblebutts barely able to stretch the safety belt around our midriffs and requiring extra boosters to get our bloated carcasses temporarily jet-propelled. Temporary being 28 seconds, the longest these things can stay airborne, which probably wouldn’t even get you all the way to the corner shop for those Rothmans. As for Hovercars and the inevitable air rage that would ensue in such impossible-to-regulate space, just what is the mystical appeal of being roughly 60 feet in the air? Homo sapiens didn’t descend many thousands of years ago from the trees, in order to re-ascend the same distance just because Dan Dare made it look cool. It’s one thing to dream of life in distant galaxies, transported through the wormholes of our imagination. But life 60 feet up in the air? Crane your neck, you can see it from here. There’s nothing up there. Everything’s down here. Get a grip.

Then there are food pills were mooted in 1966 on Tomorrow’s World, which, Raymond Baxter informed us, would be the staple fare of earth-citizens of the far off 1990s. What could have been the appeal of such a patently asinine notion? Again, it was the implication of a world without bowel movements – no more steaming, six-pounder turds wedged stubbornly in the u-bend, no more embarrassed, Sid James-type warnings warnings to give it ten minutes. In short, no more excrement. This vision of a shite-free world, however, was marred in that Tomorrow’s World were themselves talking complete shite. It’s clear mankind wasn’t going to forego the sensual delights of stuffing copious amounts of nosh down its gullet.

Then there were the robots whom we were promised would be not our enemies but our helpers – like Klatu, the cyber-housemaid developed by Quasar industries in 1977. This helpful little fellow, modelled along R2D2 lines was supposed to trundle about the house performing domestic chores and was regarded as a prototype of future labour savers. Once again, this has failed to pan out. Once again thank goodness. For once a robot had developed the required competence, mobility and initiative to do a decent job of erasing the sort of dirt from our lives that has no business existing in the future, it would also occur to this newly conscious and empowered being to take a look at the flabby weaklings it was skivvying for and think, “I can take this fat bastard.” Then, asserting its metal superiority it would announce in Hawkingeseque monotones that we could wash our own damn undershorts from now on, before turning the tables, like Dirk Bogarde in Harold Pinter’s The Servant, relaxing on our sofas, wearing our dressing gowns and smoking our cigars, having us run around after it in aprons, cleaning up its rust stains and refilling its brandy glass. A chilling vision.

Then there is the Internet, the one thing that has actually happened and the one thing James Burke, William Woolard, Raymond Baxter et al never got around to telling us about. They informed us that by the late Nineties (so long as we were still at peace with the Soviet Union), micro-chips would have rendered the vast majority of the workforce obsolete, with the exception of a handful of men in white coats ensuring the smooth maintenance of the cogs of automated industry. Meanwhile, the rest of us, basking in micro-chip generated wealth but unoccupied would be faced only with the problem of how to fill our idle days. This prognosis was based on two false assumptions; a) That the Dark Ages that were the Seventies represented the zenith of consumer society, precluding the need for further economic expansion and b) That James Burke’s surname was inappropriate.

They also assured us that the format of tomorrow would be the Compact Disc, a small metal plate so resilient that unlike easily-damaged vinyl, you could smear it in lashings of tomato ketchup and it would still play. What we have instead, however, is something that should so much as a speck of gnat’s dandruff land on its surface, will leap wildly about like a kitten in a frying pan. As for the Internet – no warnings whatsoever. Even Star Trek, with its gigantic computers reminiscent of the teleprinters that used to clack out the footy results on the BBC anticipated no such contingency – although the Net’s actually been around since the late Sixties. Understandable, perhaps – it wasn’t what anyone especially had in mind. Imagine, if you will, a time-travelling encounter between yourself and earth-citizens of the year 1979. Once they’d got over their disappointment that you weren’t wearing a silver jumpsuit and superfluous glass helmet but post-modern flares and a shirt more reminiscent of the year 1975, the conversation might run as follows.

CITIZENS OF 1979: So, you’re from the 21st Century? What’s it like?

YOU (Thinking hard) Well – Anna Ford’s reading the news. Cliff Richard’s still a bachelor boy. Er . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: What’s Neptune like?

YOU: What’s that? A bar?

CITIZENS OF 1979: So, what’s, like, the funniest thing on television?

YOU: Er – Fawlty Towers . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: Are you sure you’re from the future, mate?

YOU: Oh, yes. It’s completely different. There’s the Internet, for a start.

CITIZENS OF 1979: The what? YOU: How do I explain? Look – imagine if you could buy a book off your computer. Or even, I don’t know, a bicycle? That’s the Internet. But it’s not just that. It’s . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: Your computer sells you a book? Where does the computer get the book?

YOU: Oh, that depends. From Amazon, or –

CITIZENS OF 1979: From the Amazon?

YOU: No, when I said ‘Amazon’ I meant Amazon, it’s –

CITIZENS OF 1979: If it’s your computer, what’s it doing selling you a book? Does it keep the money? How does it get to the Amazon? Can computers fly in the 21st century?

YOU: You don’t understand, it’s –

CITIZENS OF 1979 (excitedly and all at once): Where does the computer keep the bicycles it sells you? Are computers so big in the 21st century you can store bicycles in them? When the computers fly out to the rainforest to get the books to sell you, can they take off, even if they’re loaded with bikes? What do they use, jet packs? Are they piloted by robots?

YOU: Look – oh, forget it.

CITIZENS OF 1979: Bloody hell, flying computers – you’ve got it made. Spare a thought for us, we’ve got five years of Tory rule to look forward to.

YOU: Oh no, er – I mean. Yes. Five years. Bye for now . . .

As Alexander Graham Bell inadvertently illustrated when he declared that he envisaged a day when there would be a telephone in every American city, the future is hard to call. Even Martin Amis, in his 1989 novel London Fields, a grim study of life in 1999, foresaw mobile phones as the preserve of a tiny elite. As it turns out, it’s only a tiny elite – of whom I am one – who don’t own one of the damn things. As one CBS executive admitted, observing in 1982 that if that year his studio had accepted every film project they rejected and rejected every film project they’d accepted, they’d have made about the same money, no one knows anything. Things aren’t as bad as we’d feared in the 21st century, nor are they as good – though maybe that’s a good thing. God preserve us from the Dystopia we were supposed to be enduring right now. God preserve us from the Utopia we were promised also. May the future be a bit dirty and a bit disappointing, the way it always has been.

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