With the arrival of a new month, it’s time to plan our paleofutures. In order to do this, I urge you to follow the advice of Chuck Klosterman, whose recent book (of which I have written about in previous columns) asks us to “think about the present as it if were the past.” Once you wrap your head around this, you are ready to consider various paleofutures.
I discovered the paleofuture a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled upon (without using the popular app) a blog by Matt Novak titled “Paleofuture.” I immediately became fascinated with what I found there and took a rather nostalgic journey back to my childhood when I first learned about the future from pages in Popular Mechanics that were devoted to the kinds of gadgets we would find commonplace in the years ahead (i.e. flying cars, personal jetpacks, and watches with video screens). Needless to say, some of these predictions have already come true, while others have yet to be realized.
The title of Novak’s blog refers to a type of thinking in which we assume the role of a paleontologist unearthing artifacts from the past that predict the future–the type of thinking that is somewhat related to Klosterman’s alternative way of thinking. The blog is filled with archival material from the past that gives us glimpses into the future. For instance, I took my father’s birth year–1906–and found an interesting article from “The Morning Tub” that addressed the pitfalls of giving people too much leisure time in the future. According to Novak’s commentary on the article, “It was believed that a push-button future of automation would bring about a world of unprecedented convenience and leisure. The question was how to pass the time . . . .Many imagined a leisure-centric society driven by wholesome degeneracy, jet-setting golfers and sixteen hour work weeks. The mundane nature of such a simple push-button future would even drive people to suicide.” While it is true that the early 20th century did see the rise of leisure time for the middle class, accompanied by several technological developments geared toward providing more leisure time (and less money in the bank), the “Morning Tub” columnists couldn’t foresee how the rise of leisure time eventually was defined by radio, television, movie, and social media. An interesting prediction in the “New Zealand Star” gave a very interesting prediction that sounds pretty modern: The man of the future (women was generally not part of the equation in those days) will eat his breakfast “to the accompaniment of the morning’s news, read out for the benefit of the family, or whispered into his ears by a talking machine.” Sounds like Siri and an Amazon Echo doesn’t it?
Not wanting leave Mom out of my research, I found an article from 1929 (when Mom was nine years old) that sounds very contemporary. From a San Antonio newspaper, we read about personal robot servants that will show up in the not-too-distant future. According to the article, we should anticipate enjoying our travel more with our own robot chauffeur, along with robot servants. Perhaps we have realized that dream with the advent of Uber and various Internet of Things thingies that go into the making of our Smart Homes. Needless to say, I wish both of my parents were still around to comment on how their conceptions of the future have changed throughout their lives.
As I await the birth of my first granddaughter, I am curious about what the paleofuture was like in 1989, when my daughter was born. Here’s what I found. Life magazine predicted that by the year 2000 we would no longer live in world where the following things would still be in existence: pennies, water from faucets (bottled water will replace these old-fashioned plumbing devices), canned food (farmer’s markets will supply our needs), video stores, disposable diapers (environmental concerns will make these obsolete), mailmen, dentists, signatures, plugs and switches (replaced by voice-activated stuff), TV networks, communism, Venice, keys, and all-male clergy. As we now know, all the items on this list, with the possible exception of video stores (although there’s still one in Hampton, TN), are still very much with us–especially dentists, disposable diapers, and canned food. And the last time I checked–not in person, of course–Venice was still on the map.
Let’s close with a few observations from Chuck Klosterman’s book. First and foremost is his assertion that “It’s impossible to understand the world of today until today has become tomorrow.” Along with the idea is the fact that once today has become yesterday, we become nostalgic and create all sorts of misconceptions about what yesterday was like. Another very important point made by Klosterman is that we “constantly pretend our perception of the present day will not seem ludicrous in retrospect, simply because there doesn’t appear to be any other option. Yet there is another option, and the option is this: We must start from the premise that–in all likelihood–we are already wrong.” The problem is not with our beliefs, Kosterman says, but “with the questions themselves.” When someone predicted in 1989 that we would have no need for dentists by the year 2000, they were wrong only in retrospect, and Klosterman asks us to see ourselves from a different perspective in which we imagine ourselves as already living in the past. And maybe that perspective will help us make better decisions. So, this week think about the past and the present in different ways and see what happens. At least this kind of thinking might give you some interesting perspectives on today’s headlines and will make you a better paleofuturist.
See you next week with a column that will be in my past as you read it for the first time in your present. Try not to think about that for very long.