The World of Tomorrow
Wayne writes: Recently I took an online quiz called ‘How Millennial Are You’, conducted by the Pew Research Center and referring to the so-called ‘Millennial Generation’, defined as Americans born after 1980. ‘Take our 14 item quiz’, it promised, yes/no or multiple-choice questions, ‘and we’ll tell you how “Millennial” you are, on a scale from 0 to 100, by comparing your answers with those of respondents to a scientific nationwide survey. You can also find out how you stack up against others your age.’ A typical score for ‘Millennials’ is 73; for Gen Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980), 33; for Baby Boomers (1946–1964), 11; and for the ‘Silent Generation’ (1928–1945), 4. (The survey had too few respondents from the ‘Greatest Generation’, born before 1928, to include them.)
My score was only 2 – miles away from the Millennials, outside the range of my own age bracket (Baby Boomers), below even the typical mark of the generation before mine. Christina also took the quiz, and scored a 3. We answered every question the same except for the first: ‘In the past 24 hours, did you watch more than an hour of television programming, or not?’ I said ‘Yes’, Christina ‘No’. I guess that watching television makes one less like the current generation, who presumably spend more of their time texting, or Tweeting, or monitoring Facebook. Neither Christina nor I owns a cell phone, we don’t play video games, we’re neither pierced nor tattooed, our respective parents were married (not divorced or separated or never-married), we’re politically Moderate – all apparently very un-Millennial. And yet we use the Internet, we have a website and a blog, and we watch HDTV, so we do live in the 21st century, even if we are – comfortably, even proudly – products of the 20th.
Which brings me to a graphic novel I read a few months ago, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? by Brian Fies (Abrams Comicarts, 2009). This follows a boy and his father from the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – called by some ‘The World of Tomorrow’ – through the meeting in space of Apollo and Soyuz capsules in July 1975. I lived through part of that period, and had many of the same feelings that young Buddy experiences as he grows up, excited by visions of a bright future, with space an expanding frontier for humanity, led there by scientists and engineers. I remember only vaguely the fears of nuclear attack in the fifties – my parents never built a bomb shelter in our basement, as Buddy’s father does in theirs – but I vividly recall Chesley Bonestell’s space art, which as Brian Fies says was everywhere in the fifties, and I watched Disney’s Man in Space (probably in a later broadcast, as we didn’t have a television that early; I also had, and have, the Dell comic book adaptation). Slide rules, transistor radios, the Gemini program – Fies has the period details just so.
As decades pass, father and son are divided by attitude as well as age, America goes to the Moon and then loses interest (‘as if we were retreating to the safety of home after taking our first step across the threshold’), the public mood in the seventies turns from heroic optimism to a feeling of ‘paradise lost’. I couldn’t help recalling the future portrayed while I was growing up, in books such as Mae and Ira Freeman’s You Will Go to the Moon (1959) and TV shows such as Men into Space with William Lundigan (1959–1960), very different from what actually came to pass in ways both better and worse. Fies suggests that eventually everything will come around right, thanks to ‘regular people’ building ‘the world of tomorrow one project, one goal, one choice at a time’, and to advanced technology which will solve our energy problems, cure disease, and return us to the lunar surface and beyond. Well, maybe. I hope he’s right.
But if there’s one thing futurism, and the best science fiction, tells us, it’s that it’s too easy to become enamored of technology, to be dazzled by cool gadgets and machines and overlook social consequences. For with all of the gains in technology since the fifties – most of which I would not want to do without, especially the machine by which I’m writing these words and the facility that allows me to publish them – there have also been losses: to freedom, to privacy, to a life lived at less than a frenetic pace, to thoughts that are focused, not fragmented. What was I doing before I took the Pew quiz? Working in the garden while listening to Fred Astaire on my Walkman. So very un-Millennial, so very not the world of tomorrow. But Tomorrow is born from Today, and it takes all kinds to make a world.
Image: Cover art by Brian Fies for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? The lower part is a die-cut paper overlay; when removed, Buddy and his father are shown (in uniform, as ‘Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid’, heroes of comic books that Buddy reads) in a wholly futuristic city. Also recommended: Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future by Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan (1984, rpt. 1996) and Out of Time: Designs for the Twentieth-Century Future by Norman Brosterman (2000).