Thursday, March 15, 2007

Getting the Future Wrong

At the local public library the staff often puts out older copies of periodicals on a display stand near the front entrance; these are copies the library no long wants, and anyone can take them as their own. Today I picked up the July, 1976 edition of "National Geographic," which contained a feature article about five noted thinkers predicting the immediate future. Not surprisingly, every last one of the "experts" was wrong, and not just about some things, but they were wrong in every prediction they made. Gerald Piel, the publisher of "Scientific American" states that soon growth will disappear from the world economy, suburbia will also soon be gone, and population growth--along with poverty--will quickly join the saber tooth tiger and the mastodon in the museum of natural history. Richard F. Babcock, a Chicago attorney and "an authority on planning and housing law," avers the state is going to regulate all private property and the suburbs are going to be black and the cities will be lily white: "the Johannesburgizing" of America, he calls it. Sci-fi author Issac Asimov says, yes, we will soon live in a steady-state society in which all inovations and growth will be regulated, however, that won't be such a big deal because we all going to soon live on the moon. City planner Edmund N. Bacon tells the world we cannot own nature, and everyone will have a four day week and they won't be using petroleum much longer. Dear old Buckminster Fuller is more gaseous than the others and mostly spouts nonsense, but does say we in the U.S. will soon share our power grid with China and the USSR; getting along with the Soviets, he adds, will the key to success in the 21st century. (I have a special place in my heart for Bucky Fuller. One of my favorite college memories was going to one of his free-form "lectures" and listening for three hours while he explained how lucky the universe was to have him in it and his student audience smoked pot until he made sense to them. After he was done, the kids asked him questions about their sex lives. He, of course, had answers.)
It would be easy to make fun of those who predict the future and are so foolish as to put their predictions in print for everyone to find years later. But it would be overkill. We all express ideas about the future, usually after the last of the wine is gone and we are feeling very wise. We, of course, are as wrong as the experts are, but most of us share our foolishness only with friends and family, and our loved ones are too kind to bring up the stupid things we have said. The question is--the two questions, in fact--why do we insisist on doing it and why are we always so wrong about the future will be.
At the 1930 World's Fair, the exhibition "The World of Tomorrow" showed an animated film about the Nirvana that would exist in far away 1960, when people would ride about in radio controled cars, when everyone would eat one vitamin pill in place dinner and another to make up for breakfast, and poverty, crime, pollution and disease would be distant memories. Houses in 1960 would clean themselves, and robots would fight our wars, except that there would be no more wars, not ever. The same film did predict we would have a television in every home, but the film's creators went too far and said the innovation would make us smarter.
The two most famous novels written about the future in the past century--Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World--were not meant to be predictions and were in fact novels about tendencies that were current during the authors' lifetimes. Yet we want them to be blueprints for what is to come. As horrible as both Orwell's and Huxley's visions are, we actually take comfort in believing they are showing us the truth, for we find it better to "know" the future rather than to forge ahead into the darkness without a guide. Once humans placed their trust in something greater than themselves, but we have become as gods ourselves, and we want to see where we are going and are willing to believe that some among us can act as scouts. To think otherwise would be to doubt the modern world.

Monday, March 12, 2007


I don't want to use my blog to review movies, as that is what at least half the bloggers on the internet seem to do, and I somehow want to be at least a little different from the herd. I also do not know what to say about the movie I just saw, namely the gore and bombast fest titled The 300. Dylan warned us not to criticize what we don't understand, and I have to say I did not understand this movie. I merely do not understand the big themes (assuming there are some) in the film, I also do not get the small things. I wonder why, to cite one example, the Spartans in the movie prance about in red loin cloths rather than in the hundred pounds of brass armor ancient Greek warriors usually wore. Were they trying to seduce the Persians before they fought them? Would the Persians have been that desperate for sex after the long march over the Hellespont? (The Xerxes of this film certainly looks like he would have gone for some hirsuit Spartan flesh.) Why, I also wonder, did everyone during that historic era converse in ear-splitting screams articulated at the rear of the mouth rather than on the lips and tongue? ("Our arrows will block out the sun" becomes "Er ERRors il buk o th soon.") For that matter, why are the Spartans of all people yammering on about freedom? (In the real Sparta most of the people were slaves, and those who weren't were, if they were men, members of a rigid warrior cult; the women were of course chattel property of the warriors.) Where did the Spartan women get their sexy clothes twenty-four centuries before the first Victoria Secrets store opened in the first mega-mall? How did the Spartan women get those same strapless, backless, and nearly frontless clothes to stay on so many generations before the first invisible adhesives? What were the Persians feeding their ten-story elephants and their five-story rhinos to make them get so big? And why are so many of Xerxes' soldiers either black or Chinese? (And why would so many black and Chinese actors take such demeaning roles?)
At the real battle of Thermopylae a force of some three hundred Spartans under their King Leonidas and eight thousand other Greeks made a stand on a narrow strip of land bounded on one side by the mountains and on the other by the ocean and there held off a Persian force of some three hundred thousand soldiers, who were marching toward Attica to burn Athens and force the surrender of all the Greek city-states. The Persians and their King Xerxes already ruled everything from modern day Turkey to what is now Pakistan, as well as all the lands from Egypt to Afganistan. For two days the Greeks stopped the superior Persian force, inflicting some twenty thousand casualites on their giant army. On the third day, a detachment of Persians appeared at the rear of the Greek force, for a traitor had showed them a passage through the mountains. Leonidas ordered most of the Greeks to retreat south, but he and his Spartans, along with seven hundred Thespians and three hundred Thebians, remained in the narrow pass and fought to the death on the third day of the battle. By holding off the Persians for another day, they allowed the Athenians to abandon their city and flee to their ships and safety. Those same Athenians would defeat the Persian fleet at Salamis. Without control of the sea, Xerxes could not feed his huge army, most of which he had to pull back to Asia. The force that remained behind was beaten the next rear by a combined Greek force at Plataea. Greece was thus freed of Asian rule, and we in the western world live in a civilization shaped by the Greeks and Romans rather than by Middle Eastern despots. Which brings me to my last and largest question about the movie: why would such a story need to be inflated by imagination when it is already as heroic as any that men could tell?