It’s 2012 – wondering where the flying cars are? The way some people drive, maybe it’s not a bad thing Ford hasn’t rolled them off the production line yet. But as a fan of science fiction from a young age, a passionate supporter of space exploration from around the same time and a gazer at the stars from long before that, I kind of expected the future to be, well, a little more futuristic. I’d hate to think that all those classic movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey lied to me, and yet, as 2001 came and went we weren’t boldly voyaging to Jupiter and beyond, we were mired in terrestrial disputes, our feet welded to the ground by political infighting, war, terrorism and relentless media-induced fear. The words of Robert F. Kennedy come to mind: “Some men look at things the way they are and say why; I dream of things that never were and say why not?” Somewhere along the line we, collectively, stopped dreaming of things that never were and became coddled by advances in technology that heighten only the convenience of life, not its quality. Probably the greatest step forward in the last ten years has been anything produced by Apple, and yet, really, a portable Justin Bieber catalogue isn’t exactly the sort of thing Jules Verne would have envisioned as a quantum leap. We still get from place to place, basically, on 19th Century engines – they are faster and sleeker but the principle is the same one that propelled your great-grandfather’s old jalopy down Main Street when it was a dirt road with horse hitching posts along the sidewalks. As Leo McGarry opined on The West Wing, “where’s my jetpack?” Forget that – I want my damn Back to the Future Part II Mattel hoverboard.
I laud the advances we’ve achieved in communication, this forum being one of them. What concerns me is that we are moving towards a point in our existence where we may have very little of substance to communicate about. Human beings are needy creatures – we are forever craving stimulation to make us productive. From adversity comes advancement. But what happens when life is so easy, so crammed with distraction, that challenge is all but forgotten? Look at the difference in a little over half a century – after Pearl Harbor, Americans banded together to enlist, volunteer, ration, buy bonds, collect scrap metal, anything that could be done to assist in the war effort. Contrast that to the post-9/11 era where the President told his people that the best thing they could do to help their country was to go shopping. Rosie the Riveter? Nope, Penny the Power Purchaser. And why? Because it’s easier. It’s yet another distraction, an erosion of altruism for self-interest über alles. Surrounded by distractions, we do not think. We forget about the whole and focus on the pleasure of the one. These mass-produced trinkets are fun, but they fill the one empty space that should be uniquely our own – our imagination. They saturate it so completely that we don’t think we are lacking for anything anymore, and thus, we are no longer compelled to create.
I am a victim of this myself. When I was first living on my own, I had only an old computer with no Internet capability, let alone access. I wrote constantly, generating screenplay after screenplay, thousands of pages of would-be novels. Without distraction, I could focus on creation. Then one day I decided to buy a Nintendo 64. And who wanted to stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor anymore when there were so many goombas for Mario to jump on and so many princesses to save from castle dungeons? My imagination took a huge hit and I don’t think it has ever completely recovered. To this day I prefer surfing through a few favourite sites and catching up on the latest show business news over writing something of my own nine times out of ten. I’ve been prolific here lately because I’m really forcing myself. But it’s not easy. The lethargic soul is a persistent enemy forever at the gates. And he seems tragically immortal.
Primitive computers with barely the memory of today’s pocket calculator helped land men on the moon and return them safely to Earth. That was in 1969. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out a year earlier, and given the pace at which things were happening then, it seemed a reasonable prediction – barring the unforeseen bankruptcy of Pan Am – of what our lives could be like as the 21st Century dawned. Instead, HAL 9000 is the iPhone 4S, and the moon seems further away than ever. But goshdarnit all, I’ve got 100,000 songs in a little gizmo a third the size of my wallet. Is this what RFK had in mind when he was dreaming of things that never were? Is this what Stanley Kubrick expected? Is this what Aristotle, Copernicus, Leonardo or Galileo would have wanted? Full seasons of Fear Factor streaming to my HDTV on Netflix? Snooki with a million Twitter followers?
The capacity of what humanity can do with imagination and hard work is limitless. But we have to force ourselves to look up from the screen and back at the stars again. Because although they’ll be there forever, we won’t be, and I’d rather not see the ability to download Jackass 3-D at lightspeed as our civilization’s greatest lasting legacy.