The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be

Tim Appelo, based in Seattle, writes frequently about literature, film and pop music

Back in the ‘60s, everyone knew what the future would look like. Everything would get cleaner and sleeker and whiter--the decor of every future-gazing movie since H.G. Wells’ “Things to Come” (1936). Folks would ply skyways that laughed at gravity, as in Fritz Lang’s 1926 “Metropolis” or 1962’s “The Jetsons” or the 1967 update of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, with its elevated PeopleMover.

“When I was a child in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, we got excited about the future,” recalls David Gelernter, the author of “1939: The Lost World of the Fair,” a book about the Tomorrowland of its time, the New York World’s Fair. “Jets and rocket ships and hovercraft! It made you want to work hard in school and learn science and figure things out and get a grip on the world, and it’s sad that we don’t have that feeling.”

It’s ironic that the old optimism has waned, says Gelernter, because the wonders predicted by the World’s Fair have mostly come true: nylons, TVs, faxes, synthesizers, fluorescent lights, suburbs.


But today, with technology triumphant and the millennium two years away--or three, for those who insist that it starts Jan. 1, 2001--the word “millennium” has reversed the meaning Webster’s Dictionary gives it: “A hoped-for period of happiness, peace, prosperity and justice.”

The millennium countdown is a big deal lately--it’s splashed on the covers of National Geographic and a special Newsweek issue and in a weekly feature in Time. It’s the subject of a new book, “Questioning the Millennium,” by Stephen Jay Gould. And it’s on so many people’s minds that if you haven’t made your 1999 New Year’s Eve reservations yet, you’d better plan to party at home.

Yet in a deeper sense, America is anything but celebratory about the millennium. The most recent film about New Year’s Eve 1999, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” was one humongous techno-bummer of a bash. Futuristic films are practically all dyspeptically dystopian, from “The Postman” and “Gattaca” all the way back to “Blade Runner” and “Road Warrior.”

Few kids today are apt to say, as a 21st century moppet in white, pointy-shouldered clothes tells her similarly clad dad in “Things to Come”: “They keep on inventing new things now, don’t they, and making life lovelier and lovelier!” New gizmos just seem to make life harder and faster, and even Tomorrowland has turned its back on the future.

Tomorrowland is being bulldozed, and when it reopens this spring, it will be a kind of museum to our past idealism about things to come. In part, this is because science has ruled out some of our rosier futuristic notions. The PeopleMover, for instance, turned out to be the worst possible way to move people. “It was the most energy-squandering exhibit we ever had,” says Tony Baxter, a vice president for creative development at Walt Disney Imagineering. “Energy wasn’t part of the equation then.”

We used to think energy was infinite and that human ingenuity would kick evolution up to a whole new level. Beyond the famous evolutionary procession from ambitious fish crawling onto land to knuckle-dragging ape to upright Homo sapiens, we would surely become super-smart future beings with brains so big our skulls would bulge like the 30th century character Brainiac 5 in Superman comics. Smart people no longer think humanity is getting smarter. In fact, our computers are beating our chess masters, and the most advanced scientific ideas--such as superstring theory physics--may turn out to be literally beyond human comprehension.


“I think it’s possible that we just aren’t infinitely smart, as much of [science fiction] often seems to assume,” writes Stephen Baxter, the mathematician-turned-sci-fi-novelist who wrote “The Time Ships,” an acclaimed 1995 sequel to Wells’ “The Time Machine.” “We may well come up against fundamental limits of our nature.”

The leading sci-fi writer of my youth, “Starship Troopers” author Robert A. Heinlein, would have called this a pantywaist defeatism that played right into the Commies’ hands. To Heinlein, as to Wells (the first major fantasy writer to have studied Darwin in college), evolution meant progress, and the future belonged to the strong of will.

Today, scientists like Stephen Jay Gould have drummed it into our heads that we were just being bigheaded about the future. Evolution doesn’t progress at all, and, as Gould puts it: “Our brain has probably reached the end of its increase in size.” If our skulls got any bigger, mothers could not give birth. We’re basically exactly as smart as we were while attired in smelly mammoth-skin couture in the Pleistocene Era.

But our governing assumption about the future has sure changed. A Stone Age caveman could dream of a Bronze Age. A ‘60s kid could cherish the illusion of evolution as progress, especially if he was watching Tomorrowland’s all-robot drama the Carousel of Progress, which has enjoyed more performances than any other theater piece in U.S. history. (It’s still on view at DisneyWorld.) Now, however, everybody thinks the jig is up for apes like us. Popular entertainments about the future have trained us to dance to a post-apocalypso beat. Disneyland, which is immune to bad news, will get around the downbeat zeitgeist simply by sidestepping it. Instead of updating society’s view of the future, the Imagineers will celebrate the retro-futuristic visions of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. The old Rocket Jets ride will become the Leonardo-like Astro Orbitor. The Disney version of Wells and Verne shows up in the time-travel attraction the Timekeeper.

“In 1967 we hadn’t had the apocalyptic visions of ‘RoboCop’ and ‘Terminator,’ ” says Imagineer Tony Baxter. “We’re burdened by all we’ve known since then. So we went back to the dream essence.”

“Now Tomorrowland will be a historical treatment of what once were our idealized tomorrows,” says historian John Findlay, author of “Magic Lands,” which analyzes Disneyland. “Disney is averse to predicting the future anew, and that makes sense. How can it compete with Bill Gates in this regard?”


“It’s kind of creepy,” says author Gelernter of Tomorrowland’s retro future. But Disney’s Baxter says the old Tomorrowland was “a little bit innocent and naive. People were . . . I don’t want to say delusionary, but still very optimistic about the future. Doing the future is not always an easy thing.”

“There’s a very strong barrenness that permeates recent depictions of the future,” says Judith Adams, a Jules Verne scholar and author of “‘The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills.”

She’s not kidding. The most cynical (and ruthlessly factual) comic strip in American newspapers today is called “This Modern World,” by Tom Tomorrow, whose premise is the ridicule of the very idea of national progress. In Stephen King’s new novel “Wizard and Glass,” when the future-era hero finds on some rusty 20th century oil tankers the motto “Cleaner fuel for a better tomorrow,” he says bitterly, “Rot! THIS is tomorrow”--which, of course, is a decayed future dystopia.

Visual art used to be obsessed with the idea of tomorrow, but that was yesterday.

“The avant-garde revolution in art has become old news,” writes art historian Donald Kuspit, “and nobody expects art to revolutionize--radically change--life. In fact, the idea of revolution itself has gotten a bad name.”

This culture-wide reversal has been particularly tough on the American theme park, which has long been entwined with the idea of happy revolutions in our way of life. And the revolutions on exhibit used to pay off big time for society.

“The 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago made electricity seem safe and exciting,” Adams says. In 1904, Parisian doctor Martin Couney came to America to show off the incubator he had invented to reduce premature-infant mortality by about 90%. “He couldn’t get the rest of the medical establishment to accept his evidence. So he put it on display at Coney Island. He saved over 6,500 babies of the 8,000 brought to him, largely by the immigrant poor.”


Such was the proud background of Tomorrowland’s Carousel of Progress, with the refrain that Tony Baxter loves to sing: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day!” But the shining promise at the end of the Carousel of Progress--a nuclear power plant--has been replaced in pop culture by the nuclear plant where Homer Simpson works.

“Now technology, as shown in the comic strip Dilbert, is a killing thing,” Adams says. “The way we use technology in our culture is as a way to destroy your peers, so you can be more successful yourself. You’re never caught up with technology, you’re never safe.”

That’s why we look back so longingly at the future that used to be.

“Verne and Wells do represent a lost paradise,” Adams says. “I think there’s a comfort in the nostalgic view of technology.”

Says Entertainment Weekly multimedia authority Ty Burr: “In a way, it’s nostalgia for the future that never happened. You can see it in Steampunk, a sci-fi subgenre that incorporates the 19th century industrial society of Verne into futuristic settings. Look at William Gibson’s ‘The Difference Engine,’ the film ‘Brazil,’ with its fascination with ducts and plumbing and antique technology.”

The bestselling books “Time After Time” and “The Alienist” fit into the same cultural mood of retro-tech longing, each inspiring a successful sequel. Burr also notes that in Riven, the sequel to the bestselling CD-ROM game Myst, which presents a desolate future and invites us to figure out what went wrong, the viewer “rides” in a “cable car out of ‘Blade Runner’ by way of Jules Verne.” The dials and levers and such in Myst signify pure Steampunk nostalgia.

Even ephemeral teen culture has acquired historical consciousness. When today’s kids indulge in ‘70s retro sounds or fashions or giggle at the “Scream” movies, they do it with acute ironic awareness. The earnestness of youth culture has vanished forever.


We’re all like the future dweller Bruce Willis in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film “12 Monkeys,” wailing mournfully, “I love 20th century music!” As critic Richard Corliss said apropos of that sad film, “Dour sci-fi satire always has this message: I have seen the future, and it sucks.”

It’s a sign of our times that Gilliam made “12 Monkeys” after working on the Steampunk-ish film “Brazil” with screenwriter Tom Stoppard--and that Stoppard followed “Brazil” with his masterpiece, “Arcadia,” a play about the vanity of human hopes for intellectual certainty and progress in the face of chaos theory. Like “12 Monkeys,” the play concludes with a haunting final scene that offers a vision of the future and the past as a melancholy and eternal cycle.

On his deathbed, Walt Disney reportedly pointed to the ceiling, sketching plans for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, then later succumbed to delirium, exclaiming, “Don’t be late for the plane!” But the plane to the perfectible future remains stalled on the runway. Disney’s linear, technological view of progress as a straight line pointed at a star fit to wish on has succumbed to a cyclical view of time--a tragic awareness of where our little dreams and techno-triumphs fit in the scheme of things.

The Carousel of Progress in its final incarnation in Florida features a significant change in its last act. Instead of heralding the great, big, beautiful nuclear-plant future, it concludes with a comic scene in which a robot grandma gets so excited while playing her grandson’s computer game that she shouts out her rising score, inadvertently causing the voice-activated oven to burn their dinner.

This is a brilliant adaptation to modern consciousness, and it’s typical of the most forward-looking Disneyland attractions. Instead of the omnipotent, ICBM-like original Rocket to the Moon, the new Tomorrowland will feature George Lucas’ Star Tours flight simulator, the Timekeeper show and Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, each of which reassures us by showing technology that behaves like the Keystone Kops--it always screws up, but it’s just funny. It can’t hurt anybody. The only one upset about the Star Tours ride’s near-collision with a toxic waste truck is the robot C3PO spluttering at R2D2.

“It helps people relax to see technology as clunky,” says Adams, the Jules Verne scholar. “If technology isn’t perfect, perhaps it won’t take over their lives.”


The Imagineers know we’re scared of the future, and they’ve booted the scary, old-fashioned Tomorrowland machines from their garden. The original concrete and bright, pointy steel buildings are being rounded off, retrofitted in olden-day golden hues, with lots of softening vegetation. “The point being that the future is for humans,” Baxter says. “It’s almost like returning to Eden.”

But the old Disney dream of erecting a futuristic techno-paradise is dead. In each scene of the old Carousel of Progress, ingenious Yankee technology got more powerful, until it formed a dome insulating us from the problem-ravaged Earth around it. Progress would snap us free of the chains of history. Though Walt Disney never had himself cryogenically frozen, the urban legend that he did so contained a germ of truth: Walt, dying of cancer from cigarettes, dreamed of defying time and making society immortal.

The folksy, fatherly robot on the Carousel of Progress said, “Now, most carousels just go ‘round and ‘round, without getting anywhere. But on this one, at every turn, we’ll be making progress.” But now, instead of singing about the great, big, beautiful tomorrow, Disney’s audio-animatrons ought to be singing the Joni Mitchell lyric that captures the folk wisdom of America today: “We’re captive on the carousel of time / we can’t return, we can only look / behind from where we came.”