PRINT December 1995


On and Off Line

THIS YEAR I SPENT a good part of the summer in California helping assemble a special issue of Wired magazine on “The Future of the Future.” As part of the process I simply sat down and considered the assumptions I thought were implicit in the word “future.” A few examples:

Thinking about the future means you want something.
It is a mistake to equate comfort with progress.
Money no longer protects you from the future.
The future hasn’t always existed.
The future is as artificial as a ’66 Mustang.

Another intellectual game I played with myself, and one that revealed unexpected thoughts, was pretending I was a citizen of the year 1975 and that on a TV game show I had won a trip into the year 1995, a tiny two-decade hop into the future. Fair enough: I arrive in 1995, emerge from my little time machine, and walk around the streets of San Francisco, Second and Brannan, and . . . and what? What do I see? Am I shocked? Am I amazed? Am I astounded? Probably not.

Probably I notice that the cars look rounder than they once did, but the old Detroit boats still abound. Probably I notice that the food is better, and the air is clearer thanks to catalytic converters. I notice more homeless people, of a more extreme variety and eccentricity. There are a lot more electronic gadgets around, that's for sure, but most people are still going about daily life as ever, though maybe they have better bodies and dress better and . . .

And what?

I hang around 1995 for a week or so, and I realize that the texture of life is different from what it was in 1975. It’s a subjective thing, and I try to put my finger on it. Nobody hitchhikes anymore. Nobody has hobbies. People use their phones, and phone-related devices like faxes and E-mail, all the time. Nobody seems to “have time” anymore. People don’t have “lives” anymore. A lot fewer of them even have an ego anymore—instead they’re “self-absorbed.” Metropolitan citizens drive enormous, fortresslike off-road vehicles. Children don’t walk the streets alone. People seem suspicious of everything new—they seem to crave new things and ideas only to destroy them the moment they emerge. People are exhausted by entertainment and have only “work” to fill the void.

I ask 1995 people, “Is there a big war going on right now?,” and people say no. I ask, “Is there some big enemy anywhere threatening you?,” and they say no. The Wall is down. The Russians aren’t even our friends or enemies anymore, they’re more of a punch line. Left versus right has become a Coke-or-Pepsi joke. The national agenda is a collection of pale variations on right-wing themes. There are a few more people around in 1995, but according to The Economist, on a per capita global basis there’s more food, less hunger, and less strife than at any other time in the history of the planet.

But as I say, there’s this texture to 1995 . . . this mood. I try to figure out what it is. Is it this new drug called Prozac? People do seem much more even-tempered than they used to, but surely not enough of them are taking Prozac to alter the world at large substantially. Is it weapons? Murder rates are down, I read. Too much sex? It would appear not. What is going on?

Another thing I notice is that 1995 culture is obsessed with three people: O.J. Simpson, now the most famous person in the world (who in 1975 could have imagined that?); a young billionaire-nerd from Seattle named Bill Gates, who seems to run the world; and an entity (a man?) named the Unabomber who wants to ruin the world. (His face is unknown, existing only as a figment—a police compilation drawing in which he wears a hood and a pair of mirror glasses.) These three men appear everywhere. The Unabomber is on the cover of Newsweek; Time runs a six-page cover article essentially praising his ideas. The faces of O.J. Simpson and Bill Gates have become like . . . the sun. They cannot be avoided. It seems people cannot discuss these three people enough. I figure it must be something rooted in their essence.

Another issue becomes apparent to me: now that the cold war is gone, citizens of 1995 seem obsessed with finding a new axis to bind the culture together. “Diversity” seems to be tossed around a fair amount as the new replacement paradigm for the cold war. (Also: 1995 people commonly use words like “paradigm.”) People speak endlessly of the virtues of diversity, yet there’s this O.J. business down in Los Angeles, this endless trial that has essentially undermined most of America’s faith in the fairness of the legal system and in the possibility of racial integration. The people of 1995 seem to be feeling some sort of social corrosion, some sort of void—an abyss—opening up. It’s an abyss they don’t want to fall into, one of meaningless laws, unbridled hate, death, murder, blood, and no conclusions reached, ever.

It is partly to counter this national fear of the abyss, I speculate, that the impulse to locate a new national spectrum along diversity-based lines springs up. And I must say, the world of 1995 is, on the surface at least, much better integrated racially than the world of 1975, both in the workplace and in the dream world of TV and film. Still, the diversity principle as a binder of the culture seems to make only the most surrealistic kind of sense when seen in its Los Angeles application, and besides, a culture either is or is not diverse. It is not a spectrum; it is digital, not analogue.

So instead I look at the other two people with whom citizens of 1995 are obsessed: Gates and the Unabomber. If there really is a new spectrum, it seems to emerge from these two men: it is the line drawn between Gates on one end and the Unabomber on the other. That line offers a kind of sliding scale upon which we can locate the textures and inflection of daily life in this strange year. Restated, this 1995 axis has two poles: a) a belief in progress and b) the vaguely self-pitying negation of progress or its possibility.

The Unabomber does not believe in progress. He wants to de-invent all machines: an impossible, sophomoric task based on personal whim. Bill Gates does believe in progress, and wants a Windows-loaded PC in every home on earth: an impossible, sophomoric task based on personal whim and self-interest. These polarities have become the new spectrum.

How will I explain to 1975 people that 1995 people no longer argue about mass issues—whether to spend money on social programs or weapons—that instead they wonder whether to spend money on personal needs . . . either a software program called Windows (What the hell is software?, the 1975 people will ask) or on faux-comfy consumer items like flannel shirts and birchbark lamps that evoke a more Unabomber-like pretechnological time? At this point I need to ask you, a 1995 citizen, a personal question or two. Here goes: Do you still believe in progress? Are we inventing too many new machines? Are you obsolete? Am I obsolete? Did you buy Windows 95? Do you know Quark? Has anybody you’ve known died of AIDS? What’s your SkyTel pager number? Does your lunch have any fat in it? Is O.J. guilty? Does it matter? Do you think maybe the Unabomber’s got the right idea?

Homesick for 1975 after three weeks in 1995, I go rent a copy of Towering Inferno from a video chain, Blockbuster—V-8 automobiles and dial telephones and . . . that’s it. I am shocked at the amount of technology humans have agglomerated in only two decades. And none of these technologies comes with operating instructions—they’re merely plopped into the everyday world, and the everyday world is supposed to integrate them somehow. Is this the deal?

There’s an intellectual proposition emerging out of England called “artifactual coevolution.” Simply stated, it goes like this: a robin that can’t build a nest is a robin that isn’t going to be breeding any more robins; artifact and organism are intrinsically soldered together. The analogy might be made that humans who can’t work with machines aren’t going to be making any more machines, and probably not many more humans. Robins build nests; humans build technology. So whether we fund a dance troupe or a fighter-bomber is an issue almost touchingly dated, massively dwarfed by the question of whether or not the bulk of humanity will be able to stay viable as a species in the face of all these “things,” these metanests, that we’ve invented, and that we show no signs of stopping inventing.

This is the texture of 1995; its background radiation. The social constructs of politics are pitifully small in scale compared to this astounding new Darwinian imperative, which is now becoming gapingly apparent. Ideology is a joke because larger issues—issues dealing with the survival of the species—have cruelly pinpointed the artificiality of ideology as a means of escape.

In 1975, we worried about oil. Nobody worries about oil anymore. Many people in 1975 believed that oil tricked us into reproducing, just as surely as abundant potatoes tricked the population of 19th-century Ireland into reproducing. In 1995 there is nothing to trick citizens into reproducing. There are only caveats on the act.

In 1975, when you phoned somebody at work at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, they were “stressed.” Nowadays that same Thursday worker is “crazed.” People don’t joke about nervous breakdowns; they joke about leveling a post office with an AK-47.

The other day I was on the phone trying to explain to the person on the other end the mood in the space where I was working. I said everybody there was feeling a bit fragmented—split too many ways—spread thin—interrupted. I said, “I think we’ve invented one too many inventions and we can’t digest them all.” And then I realized I probably really believed this: a lack of digestion time tricks us into not functioning. The nest has become too complex. Perhaps there is an equilibrium ecology of humans and the things we build, and perhaps we need to reestablish this equilibrium.

Back at the beginning I said that the future is as artificial as a ’66 Mustang. It is. The difference is that while we built the future, we cannot dismantle it. Our nests have become infinitely more complex since 1975. We’ve built nests within which we are temporarily lost; nests without operating instructions; nests without windows; nests that feel like traps—but they’re still only nests, and they are our home and the only one we are ever going to have, and the nests in which our eggs must be laid.