Friday, September 5, 2008

Past and Future

A little while ago, I stumbled across this vintage magazine article from Mechanix Illustrated, titled "What Will Life Be Like in the Year 2008?" The article, written in November of 1968, contains the usual mixture of amusingly wild imagination and startlingly accurate guesses; the whole thing is fun to read, and I'm glad when people take the time to archive things like that on the Internet.

Here's a portion of the article that's not too far off, though the details are a little funny:

The single most important item in 2008 households is the computer. These electronic brains govern everything from meal preparation and waking up the household to assembling shopping lists and keeping track of the bank balance. Sensors in kitchen appliances, climatizing units, communicators, power supply and other household utilities warn the computer when the item is likely to fail. A repairman will show up even before any obvious breakdown occurs.

Computers also handle travel reservations, relay telephone messages, keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, compute taxes and even figure the monthly bills for electricity, water, telephone and other utilities. Not every family has its private computer. Many families reserve time on a city or regional computer to serve their needs. The machine tallies up its own services and submits a bill, just as it does with other utilities.

Money has all but disappeared. Employers deposit salary checks directly into their employees’ accounts. Credit cards are used for paying all bills. Each time you buy something, the card’s number is fed into the store’s computer station. A master computer then deducts the charge from your bank balance.

Computers not only keep track of money, they make spending it easier. TV-telephone shopping is common. To shop, you simply press the numbered code of a giant shopping center. You press another combination to zero in on the department and the merchandise in which you are interested. When you see what you want, you press a number that signifies “buy,” and the household computer takes over, places the order, notifies the store of the home address and subtracts the purchase price from your bank balance. Much of the family shopping is done this way. Instead of being jostled by crowds, shoppers electronically browse through the merchandise of any number of stores.

The portion on medical care, however, is just wishful thinking:

Medical research has guaranteed that most babies born in the 21st century will live long and healthy lives. Heart disease has virtually been eliminated by drugs and diet. If hearts or other major organs do give trouble, they can be replaced with artificial organs.

Medical examinations are a matter of sitting in a diagnostic chair for a minute or two, then receiving a full health report. Ultrasensitive microphones and electronic sensors in the chair's headrest, back and armrests pick up heartbeat, pulse, breathing rate, galvanic skin response, blood pressure, nerve reflexes and other medical signs. A computer attached to the chair digests these responses, compares them to the normal standard and prints out a full medical report.

No need to worry about failing memory or intelligence either. The intelligence pill is another 21st century commodity. Slow learners or people struck with forgetful-ness are given pills which increase the production of enzymes controlling production of the chemicals known to control learning and memory. Everyone is able to use his full mental potential.

And other details from the article, like domed cities, self-driving cars that can travel at speeds of 250 miles per hour, robotic household servants, and vacations under the ocean or on orbiting space hotels make me wonder just how liberally the people who thought of those things were indulging in the recreational pharmaceutical culture of the late sixties.

When I was reading the piece, I was initially struck by the optimism of it. The late sixties were years of cultural and political unrest, violence at home and abroad, an explosion of societal dissolution, tumultuous and unmoored from the past; yet in articles like this one that were quite popular during the time span all anyone seemed to see was a very bright future for what it was still politically correct to call mankind. Compare that to the relentless doom and gloom we hear today, and I can't help but wonder: when did we Americans lose our sense of optimism, our belief that we could accomplish anything, and our drive to explore, expand, improve, and enrich not our own lives, but the lives of our fellow men?

But as I read through it again, I discovered the seeds of the loss of faith. All of the great advances and dreams the writer created in his scenarios of that far-distant year of 2008 were based on a belief in science and technology, a belief, in fact, that science and technology could and would solve every problem man had ever had, from the need to work (the author thought people would only work four hours a day in 2008 because of all the increased productivity), the need to worry about food (because factory farms would run as efficiently as all other factories) or shelter (because the pre-fab plastic home would be readily affordable for the masses), to transportation, health, education, and all the other challenges people face in the world. Science, the new god rising from the ashes of the old faiths and creeds that had plunged the world into war and brought us to the brink of destruction, would be a much more benevolent deity; people would live cheerful, easy, happy, productive lives, and the only worship required of them would be the two hours of daily study needed to be initiated into the new mysteries of the technological super-paradise which the author mentions.

Clinging with a simple, naive, and primitive faith to the notion that Science would solve all, rule all, control--but kindly!--all, and eradicate once and for all the problems and troubles and pains and sorrows and sufferings and despairs that have plagued men since the Garden of Eden, the people at the dawn of the computer age trusted that forty years into the future the most perplexing problem would be which frozen dinner to microwave, or what three-dimensional television program to tune in to of an evening. But Science has proved to be as false a god as all false gods that promise salvation without suffering, or speak of redemption while denying the Fall.

True science is always a servant of God, not a god in its own right. Science, being limited to the physical and sensate world, can only solve material problems--and even then, not always, and not without costs. But the problems that lurk deeply in every civilization do not spring from material wants, and can't be solved by applying rational and/or materialistic solutions to them; the greatest troubles and pains men carry are always the ones borne by the soul, and will no more be solved by science than a baby's existential fear brought on by his mother's absence can be eradicated by pretty toys or amusing distractions.

I can't say what life will be like in 2048, but at least I know one thing: the false hope man placed on Science as Savior from about the middle of the twentieth century on has begun to dim in the face of the evidence that material solutions to immaterial problems will never work, and by God's grace the attempt to make of Science a deity or demigod will seem as odd and amusing a notion to the people of 2048 as some of the ideas of 1968 seem to us now.

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