(This painting was based on a Kodachrome slide I took of a roller coaster with colored lights silhouetted by a sunset. My dad asked to borrow the slide to make the painting.)
August 7, 2012 Some strange threads came together today and formed a nexus in my mind that began to reverberate with the strange attractor of possible futures. I was riding with two friends, young intellectuals (in the truest sense of that word) who were entering PhD programs, one of them in Semiotics in Estonia. The other, some sort of advanced mathematics at CU. Both seemed to have a much darker sense of the prospects of the human species than I do. They had both been living in Europe and had been out and about seeing more of the world than I usually do. There was a cognitive dissonance because one of them had inherited a beautiful, late model Saab convertible which we were riding with the top down from Boulder to Nederland— a drive that surrounds you with beautiful high desert canyon vistas.
Boulder is so much it’s own bubble (we often call it “the People’s Republic of Boulder” or “Planet Boulder”) as close to a utopian town as you can find in America, no sign of the recession, a futuristic mountain town aglow with talent (the best educated city in America, also the most physically fit), the most olympic athletes per capita, aerospace, advanced software engineering, NCAR, NOAA and NIST. To some it feels like the world’s smallest Scandinavian country and yet, despite, this backdrop, there was this sense of the darker possibilities of the larger world, the possibility that the global financial system is teetering, the possibility that the libor scandal might be one catastrafuck too many for the spherical house of marked cards that is our global economy.
As we drove through the canyon, I pointed out an odd thing about this week. It was a week charged with events that had a weird present tense nostalgia, because these newly minted events resonated so strongly with the America of unstoppable optimism that I remembered from childhood.
One event of the week was Michael Phelps, a perfect American hero type, a wholesome innocence about him, a 27-year-old who still seems adolescent, who travels everywhere with his mom, winning so many more Olympic medals, becoming the greatest Olympian of all time, an American never to be surpassed, etc. Within a couple of days of that was the amazingly perfect landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover, which I stayed up to watch as a live feed from Nasa.gov, the most exciting space mission since Apollo.
I wrote about the rover landing as a Facebook Status update the same night:
Just watched, live streaming from NASA, the entry into the atmosphere of Mars and successful landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover. I spent a couple of hours seeing the live feed from the control room. Keeping in communication with the space craft through multiple stages of detachment was extremely iffy, but all the fragile radio links, (the Odyssey orbiting satellite had to be positioned just so, and only if the line of sight across the horizon of the landing site was angled just right could they successfully relay off the capsule, and then the skycrane and ultimately the rover itself). Communication was continuous and every stage signaled its perfect completion. And then the first images arrived, two of them, from the rover, showing a wheel on the surface of mars and another image showing the shadow of the rover against the surface. The euphoric explosion of the control room had the wattage of Olympics parents watching their kid win about 18 gold medals in a single, seven minute event. Congratulations Curiosity Rover and team, I hope this is the beginning of an amazing voyage of discovery. We have never had such good eyes on the surface of another world (17 cameras some HD and 3D cinema quality), and may learn much about the origin of life, about our origins and about our sister world, one of our very few neighbors in a lonely stretch of the endless vacuums of space.
Even more than Phelps, the rover landing resonated with childhood when it seemed that every couple of months there was a euphoric NASA mission control room because we had just pushed out the frontier of space in some unprecedented way again. I’ve been pointing out to people that there is an intense nostalgia going on for the early Sixties—the series Madmen, for example. It was the last time when American self-confidence and optimism in technological progress seemed supreme. There was the looming shadow of thermonuclear war with the Russians as a possibility, but we felt very sure of ourselves as the good guy in that conflict and we were culturally, technologically and economically so clearly their superior. Car ads usually included superlatives like “longer,” “wider,” “more horsepower than ever before.”
The epicenter for me, and for many, of this all confident optimism was the General Motors Futurama in the World’s Fair of 1964-65 in Flushing Queens, New York, which was a subway ride away for my family and we went there several times. You must see this two minute youtube to get a sense of why this exhibition, the most popular attraction of one of the few great World’s Fair,s was so mesmerizing. Millions of people from all over the world saw it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2YB6DdTBWk (watch it, watch it now). Its vision of a high tech utopian future was so convincing, and there was so little anxiety about environmental issues. (Yeah, there was Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, but that didn’t filter down to a seven-year-old or most Americans). The early Sixties was, oddly enough, a more futuristic time than the present era, even with our smart phones and such. It’s interesting that the last X Men film was set during that era and the recent Men In Black sequel went back in time to the 1969 Apollo launch, which also seems more futuristic than most of the big events of this day.
The flawless landing of Curiosity, and the victories of Michael Phelps, seemed a resurgence of that optimism. I wondered aloud about these events occuring so close to each other as we drove in the convertible through the winding canyon. Could this be a set up for the principle of enantiadromia (roughly the tendency to oscillate between extremes)? The American psyche gets these two shots of nostaligic /futurisitc optimism in just a few days— is that the counterpole set up for some dark shock to the body politic?
My friends dropped me off at the dentist and with little transition the brilliant sunshine, canyon and luxurious convertible were replaced with the dental chair and some particulary grusome deep drilling and grinding—lots of Novocaine for sure, but my skull was reverberating. (Trust me, I’m not complaining, I’m guiltily grateful that I am getting dental care). To occupy my mind I put in earbuds and listened to a Coast-to-Coast AM show. James Howard Kunstler was on, author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere http://www.kunstler.com/index.php.
Unlike so many who want to convey a dystopian view of the future— we’ve all heard the demented doomsayers, the fear porn folk, whom I usually dismiss—but this man was a rigorous intellectual and the vision he painted of a future timeline had a lot of grounded authority. The enforced stillness of the dental chair helped me to drill down into what he was saying and really picture it. He pointed out how confident and comfortable Germany, England and France were before World War I. A cascade of technological miracles was happening for them—telephones, airplanes, movies…and then— blood and rubble. I’m more on the side of my friend Rob Brezsny (father of Pronoia), more of an optimist. (see http://zaporacle.com/card/pronoiagood-things-are-goin-on/) Living in Boulder, a Star Trek future seems more possible than the Road Warrior-minus-any-gas-at-all future Kunstler sees. He does, however, see people having a better quality of relationships and community as the grid, internet and global commerce come apart in the future he forsees. What also made him so convincing is that he’s written fantasy novels about this future, so in the imaginal realm he’s lived it, and smelled it, and talks about it almost like a time traveler who’s actually witnessed it. His view of a global economy and technology-come-undone world, a world where people have withdrawn to small town agrarian life and don’t know much about what’s happening a couple of hundred miles away, is remarkably like the world of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books that are set in a future that is closer to the wild west. Paper is a rare commodity, but in a few hidden places remnants of abandoned high technology remain, as does radiation poisoning and many signs of genetic degradation.
It’s not that I believe in such a future; I believe more in the resourcefulness and inventiveness of the human species, but… one massive solar flare, like the Harrington Event of the 1850s, and every electronic everything could suddenly become a dysfunctional artifact of an era that we might not live to see again. I know there have been certain moments when I’ve walked into the brilliantly lit interior of a 20 aisle supermarket and wondered: How much longer can this go on? Tropical produce from thousands of miles away, an absurd abundance of food and food-like substances.
I’m not a true believer in Kunstler’s timeline or any other. It is one amongst the possible timelines vibrating around us. His view might be wrong, but no one can say it’s far-fetched. The lesson of history is that civilizations are fragile organisms, far more fragile than they seem when they are at their height. Today I felt the spooky vibration, the haunting sense of how the waveform of the future could collapse into an unexpected, and perhaps undesirable, form.
some friends left comments
Ron Lampi ”…how much longer can this go on” is a thought that often comes to me too. It triggers an eerie, ominous feeling…like, at some point something has to give…this disconnected Postmodern sense of an ongoing unreality that has no boundaries… You did say “bubble”–you can’t really see its boundary, but you feel it…
Rob Brezsny I suspect that none of us has the capacity to foretell the future of the human race. No one — not psychics, not doomsayers (even Kunstler-esque types), not intelligent optimists, indigenous shamans, no one. There is a strong case to be made that this is the worst of times, and an equally strong case that this is the best of times; a strong case that everything will collapse into a miserable dystopia and a strong case that we are on the verge of a golden age. It’s impossible to know in any “objective way” which is “truer.” Anyone who asserts they do know is just cherry-picking evidence that rationalizes their emotional bent. The variables are chaotic and abundant and beyond our ken.
Jonathan Zap I completely agree, the future is the unknown, less knowable than the distant reaches of the universe or the quirky, improbabilities within atoms (which we seem to be getting better at knowing). This is why the I Ching tell us to avoid (for personal or collective timelines) prestructuring the future. In earlier epochs the near future wasn’t as unknown because it was very likely to look so similar to the past, but in our age, with so many wild card variables boiling away in the alchemical crucible, the future is more unknowable than ever. What vibrated for me was more the sense of the power of the future—whatever it is; when we get there, it will be a potent reality, and standing over here, in the nowever, the uncollapsed waveform of the future, the cloud of unformed possibilities, feels like it is especially electrified right now. And as for someone like Kunstler, anyone who is claiming to foresee the future based on reason and research is like a guy in his basement using a slide rule and algorithms to foresee the outcome of a volatile romantic relationship.
If you want to see what the future looks like when well researched and funded rationalists make projections check out this youtube from the Futurama General Motors created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. We get fly-over views of sleek 14 lane superhighways with 100 mph lanes and continuous lighting where “automatic radio control keeps a safe distance between cars.” Sound fantastic? “Remember, this is the wonder world of 1960!”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cRoaPLvQx0