My good friend Steven Savage riffed on The Loss of Cool Futurism: Disunity after a discussion on our part about how something like the sciento-optimism of OMNI Magazine would be a no-show today.
Like Steven and a lot of other nerdy kids of the '80s, I was an OMNI reader, and I read it for just about every damned thing that was jammed between its gorgeous covers: the fiction, the speculative pieces, the journalism about the way science touched everything from art to human behavior. OMNI, by the way, is now being rebooted, and available in the Internet Archive until someone yells at them to take it down. I suspect that's one of the fastest ways to find out who actually owns it, since there's some dispute there.
And like Steven, I dug the way OMNI posited a future that was by default better than the one we had. We were getting our first little whiffs of the future courtesy of the personal computers only just then poking their digital little noses into households. Never once back then would I have entertained the idea that all this would be, could be, seen as a terrible pain in the ass. The biggest shock that came to my naïve little self back then regarding anything in OMNI was discovering the same folks who put out OMNI also put out Penthouse.
This can-do attitude stood in stark contrast to the cultural skepticism many people had manifested about science for some time — since at least the Fifties and Sixties, which was the last stretch of time when it was possible to take seriously slogans like "Better Living Through Chemistry".
The tech-nerd contingent that slowly arose from the '80s on, though, seemed like a breath of fresh air. They may have been corporate-run and -funded, but the people in charge seemed, well, to get it. They had the right ideas — better than we did, actually — and all we had to do, like the typewriter-wielding protagonist in Patrick Farley's The Guy I Almost Was, was hang around long enough to inhabit that great, funky future they were building.
Such was the delusion. We wouldn't have to do any actual work to get rid of all those terrible problems that didn't actually have technological solutions, like class warfare (or actual warfare). All we had to do was wait for the tech to evolve to the point where those problems would wither away, where money and jobs (at least, as we currently understood them) would become irrelevancies.
If there was any one cultural incarnation of this idea, it was Star Trek. Star Trek hinted at something better — a unified future, one where a rational and human scientific progressivism had prevailed. Heartening as it was to hear about how Star Trek had inspired many people to go out and build, if only incrementally, that better future (hey, look, they named the space shuttle Enterprise!), the show's progressivism was weirdly blinkered by its own cultural assumptions.
The biggest and most fatal of these assumptions was that a society which could have all those technical toys wouldn't want to be anything but socially enlightened and progressive. We couldn't have been more wrong. A society could have all of the technology of the West at its command and still remain autocratic and authoritarian, and in fact use its very technical genius to stave off any pesky unwanted social progress (see: Singapore, North Korea), or to simply preserve existing animosities with either its neighbors or within itself (see: Egypt, Syria).
Even Star Trek couldn't believe in its own future before long. Look at how each successive incarnation of the franchise grew all the more militant and grim, culminating in this summer's version: a mindless action movie wrapped around the tiniest possible core of post-9/11 antiestablishment paranoia. Star Trek lost its innocence only to keep pace with the rest of the culture around it.
Truth be told, I don't think it was 9/11 that touched all this off. Rather, that was the sledgehammer that trashed the last few remaining bits of the façade. We'd already been suspecting for too long that unity in the old H.G. Wells / Star Trek mode was impossible — not just because people wouldn't stand still for it (as Wells himself speculated would be the case in Things to Come), but because even the most well-intentioned of us are corruptible, because the corruption is not always outwardly visible, and because science and technology are neither good nor evil but also not neutral. They will become someone's handmaiden, and not always yours alone.
It has long since stopped becoming fashionable to speculate about a future that is anything but a version of what we have in front of us right here and now. But in a way, OMNI-style futurism suffered from the same defect, albeit inside out. It posited a future that was comfortable and familiar, built on assumptions about our lives that we wanted to assume would continue to be true. Trouble is, those desires might well have varied widely depending on whether you were, for instance, a kid from a struggling family in Newark as opposed to a self-styled Miami jet-setter. The idea that an OMNI future could have done well by all of us breaks down in the face of not all of us wanting the same things in the first place. And the only future in which everyone wants exactly the same thing goes by a word no OMNI reader wanted associated with his future: dystopia.
The biggest problem with an OMNI future, then, isn't that a hip, technologically-enabled future isn't a bad thing, just a deeply unrealistic one. Not because of what technology might become, but because of what human nature still is — and expecting the former to change, or ameliorate, the latter has been our ongoing mistake.
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