Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Living in the Future

For a long time I have taken 1970 as the baseline of my life, although 1972 would probably be the more apt marker: I think that could the eighteen and twenty year-olds and I be magically brought together in some bardo analogue, the guy in the middle might find more in common with his superannuated future incarnation than with the mewling ninny he’d been two years earlier. At least, I venture to hope that he’d find me less embarrassing. On the other hand, it’s amusing to measure my emotional progress from the same Moment Zero as UNIX does.

Whichever point I might choose, I’m struck as I look back at how incurious both young men were about the world in which they would pass their maturity. I can’t recall ever giving much thought about what the world of the twenty-first century might be like. I suppose there was a vague notion that urban architecture would resemble the skyline depicted in “The Jetsons” (as it does indeed now in parts of China), and perhaps there was an expectation of flying cars, which I’m grateful, observing the behavior of drivers down below, has not yet come to pass.

I did take for granted, I think, the civic mythos with which my cohort had been raised: infinite upward mobility. Every year, things were going to get better. Middle-class families—I knew no other—would move up the sequence in automotive lines (in General Motors terms, Chevrolet to Pontiac to Oldsmobile to Buick to, eventually, Cadillac), and to progressively larger and better-appointed homes. There had been signs, of course, of strain in the system, including the debasement of the coinage in 1965, but, not alone among the citizenry, I hadn’t paid much attention to these. I did not foresee, for example, that after 1968 I would not again reside in a single-family dwelling with more than one toilet until late in 1999.

The 1973 oil embargo—I was twenty-one by that time—that got my attention, and around the same period the price of residential real estate began to climb at rates which appeared steep at the time, although mollusc-slow by the standards of our recent bubbles. It occurred to me by 1974 that perhaps the economic escalator might not have room for all of us, and still I did not attempt to form a mental picture of The Future, which I assumed would take care of itself, and which in any event was a long way off.

Digression: until around that time, it was rather easy for those of us who had been raised in stultifying suburban comfort to dispense with the bourgeois amenities, but this owed in part, I believe, to our awareness that if we ever did tire of going without these conveniences, we could at any time shrug off our renunciation and sit down at the table again. Gradually it dawned on us that the table had a finite circumference, and that it was rimmed by only so many chairs. As a friend of mine observed in 1987, anent the rise of the so-called yuppies, “People have realized that some of us are going to be left out, and they’re saying not me.”

Still, The Future. In the early nineties, when I was about forty, the pace of technological change appeared to have gone on afterburners, and this seemed exciting. I can’t claim to have been exactly au courant in my thinking: for example, I thought that this whole “internet” thing was a passing fad, a misapprehension shared at the time, to their subsequent sorrow, by numerous captains of industry who have spent the intervening decades attempting to corral the thing. And indeed, the pace of change appears in substantial part to have moved into cyberspace. An American plucked from, say, downtown San Francisco in 1948 into the same spot in 1968 would instantly notice the change in tailoring, grooming, automotive styling. Notice? Hell, he’d be gobsmacked; would fall to the sidewalk shitting himself and bleeding from the ears. Move a San Franciscan from 1998 to 2018 and he’d likely register a shift, but it would be the online environment (if he could find a “cyber cafe”—remember those?) that would appear outlandishly foreign to him.

But here we are. Occasionally, as I walk to the corner Whole Foods Market (the “Food Hole” as we call it, with latterly imperfect affection), I play a mental game, imagining either of my two baseline selves to be vouchsafed or cursed back then with a view of the world through my 2018 eyes. What would they make of it? The apparel of the XXI century would not appear far removed from 1972, although the tattoos—these were a class-signifier back in the day, and not a positive one—and the piercings would be startling. I suppose also that I imagined by now that we’d be going about in outfits with ribbed fronts and flared shoulders (we almost got to the latter element, at least in women’s “power” attire, in the early eighties), whereas jeans and apparel that would not have appeared inconsistent with these still abound in the visual field I’ve granted to my boggle-eyed youthful voyeurs.

The sheer shabbiness of the urban environment would, I think, have astonished my younger selves. Again, the idea of eternal upward mobility, of prosperity ever expanding, was part of the package my cohort was raised on. Beginning in 1979 I began to commute each day from Oakland to San Francisco, and as I passed the Mechanics Monument at Battery and Market streets marked the presence of the “potato lady,” as I and a coworker called her, who stood beside that civic statue, begging for change in her shabby brown coat (she resembled, as we thought, a largish baked potato. It must have been humiliating for her—she looked fiftyish to us—but we regarded her with dismissive contempt: compassion is not an affliction of the young). It occasioned remark because there were no other mendicants routinely to be seen in the Financial District back then.

Fast forward to 2018. San Francisco is overrun with beggars. I never, for the last quarter-century of my alleged career, made it between work and home without being solicited. Nor indeed, for longer than that, did I dwell in Oakland without a sharp awareness of the city’s criminal lumpenproletariat. This, too, would not have figured in my youthful picture of the present century, had I troubled to formulate one. Until I moved to Oakland, and actually for three or four years thereafter (for I fetched up at first in one of the tonier districts of this troubled city), “crime” was something that happened to other people, whereas for many years awareness of it has been a natural condition of my existence here, something akin to the tetanus that keeps our fingers slightly curled by our sides.

In 1962 we had “The Jetsons.” Placed before us just twenty years later, the vision of the twenty-first century, still distant, was Blade Runner, and I think we can all agree that while neither prophecy was perfect, Ridley Scott and his production team landed closer to the mark than did the showrunners at Hanna-Barbera.

And politics? The Soviet Union appeared to be a permanent feature of the global landscape. In 1970 or thereabouts I read an article ludicrously titled “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” What a joke! In the event, of course, the author, who predeceased his subject by just eleven years had a better take on it than I did in my late teens. So, communism essentially dead. And fascism of course, except—what the fuck?—in the United States of America, in the XXI century promised by the Jetsons or at least by Stanley Kubrick, fascism claws its way out of the six feet of earth and loam heaped upon it, yanks out the stake pounded into its heart in 1945, and rises gibbering, vicious and ravenous seventy years later incarnated—“the second time as farce”—as President Donald Trump.

I did not see this coming. And I think that the late USSR may serve as a cautionary example that a Great Power in decline can vanish, historically speaking, in a heartbeat. Indeed, if there are historians still doing business half a dozen decades from now, I suspect that they will record that the two global empires of the late twentieth century ultimately committed suicide out of sheer self-loathing. And the coroner may report that in each instance it was assisted suicide.

Somehow we have blundered into a future wherein the American genius has contrived to deliver a society combining most of the worst features of anarchy and authoritarianism while signally failing to deliver the putative benefits of either scheme. I want my money back.

I want my future back.