The Future is Not What it Used to Be
Updated: Apr 7, 2018
1997 was, after all, the thrillingly futuristic year the Space Family Robinson was said to have left Earth in their roomy flying saucer, the “Jupiter 2”.
Right; 2017. Who do you think you’re kidding? Hey, I’m all for Time’s Inexorable Passage and the ghastly wearing away of my physical being until I am naught but a misapplied toupee, a sequined Gandhi diaper, and constant, incoherent hollering—but “2017”? That’s just pushing it. This nutty date sounds like the title of a dystopian dime store novel from my 9th grade English class in, like, the 70s? If this is 2017, that makes this the distant future, and to be honest I never thought I’d make it here. I was (honestly, now) a worried little kid with an uninformed grasp of statistics, but the strong intuition that the world was, among other things, an immense and roiling accident scene that I was sure would strike me dead before I was 20. Traffic, landslides, crackling toasters tossed into bathtubs—just reaching 1997 seemed frankly impossible. I was sure I wouldn’t live long enough to see the bubble-headed robots, jetpacks and laser rifles we were promised in the wildly mistaken hit TV series Lost In Space.
1997 was, after all, the thrillingly futuristic year the Space Family Robinson was said to have left Earth in their roomy flying saucer, the “Jupiter 2”. In 1966 this jug-eared beanpole with a crummy haircut and lazy eye thought 1997 sounded like the very end of time itself. I dreamed constantly of what the future would be like. I marveled as the hit television family (and their meddlesome stowaway), all dressed up in their skin tight velveteen pajamas, plunging necklines and bright yellow dickies, blasted off in search of a planet circling Alpha Centauri. They had every courageous intention of colonizing that darned planet. How exactly they were going to populate the place is anybody’s guess, what with Mr. and Mrs. Robinson sworn to each other, and co-pilot Don West and Judie Robinson going steady. That left 9 year-old Will with his tween sister Penny, the Robot, and cowardly Dr. Smith. “Run, Will Robinson!”
I had better luck with my Smith Corona, and every day it was all I could do not to pick it up and hug it to my chest. I was dumbstruck by its wonders, overexcited by its insectoid moving parts, intrigued by the lubricant smell that rose like a perfume from the housing.
When Lost in Space was burning up prime time in the mid-60s, 1997 sounded like a starry-eyed date in a far-flung, completely unimaginable future. Now the date “1997” conjures the cast of Friends gamboling playfully about in that fountain for the millionth time; an image as dated and cornea-glazing as a postcard of Mount Rushmore. So, if 1997 wasn’t the future, where did the future go? To answer that question we need to travel back to my 8th grade typing class at Centennial Junior High School in Boulder, Colorado. Come on along!
The Deceptively Named Mr. Carnival: Our Future’s Gatekeeper
Mr. Carnival was a portly man of few words, and the school’s lone typing teacher. I want to say he had black wavy hair, but he was one of those people whose unruly hair, beaten back and tamed with a hairbrush, would resolve into a single dromedary ridge on the top his head. So his hair was not wavy; it was a single cresting wave shellacked with Brylcreem. He had thick black sideburns, black horn-rimmed glasses, and a light blue button-down short sleeved Van Heusen from JCPenney, one of those translucent blouses through which the undershirt is plainly visible. He was not given to conversation, possibly because on some level his daily tormented walk through the valley of crappy teen typists stole the language right out from under his unpleasantly bushy mustache. But I speculate.
There were 30 or so of us in the classroom on the second floor of the school. A wall of windows looked out onto the interior courtyard where sprawling teens in bell-bottoms sometimes lounged past lunch amid the pfitzers and pines. I had two huge crushes that year: the little blue Smith-Corona manual typewriter that awaited me every day in Mr. Carnival’s class, and Laura Brenton. I could barely manage to even pass Laura in the school’s hallways without nearly falling to my knees in mute, goggle-eyed….splendor, I guess you’d call it. I had better luck with my Smith Corona, and every day it was all I could do not to pick it up and hug it to my chest. I was dumbstruck by its wonders, overexcited by its insectoid moving parts, intrigued by the lubricant smell that rose like a perfume from the housing.
I would dreamily spend 10 minute stretches tapping the spacebar to just to hear the rounded little ‘bhumph’ of the spring-loaded carriage advancing to the left by degrees. We had no typewriter at home, which vexed me for a time. When I found out my neighbor and schoolmate Cathy Anderson’s family owned a little-used typewriter, I pestered her with the tenacity of a campground gnat until she let me keep her family’s machine at my house. I would shut my bedroom door, slip a sheet of paper in and type. Sweet unbridled madness of youth!
To me this unadorned little typewriter was pure magic. It may as well have been a crypto-artifact, with its mysterious rubberized “platen”, paper-thwacking typebars and leering silver flange for slapping the carriage back into compliance when you neared the right margin and the little warning chime rang. How did the mechanism get all those letters to strike the paper just so, the metallic sticks snapping perfectly up from their hidden grotto and into the type guide reticle?
Then one day I walked in to find my classmates gathered around something at the back of the class, Kubrick apes around the Tycho Monolith. I pushed through the throng and saw on the desk a humming, low-slung gunmetal gray box of textured metal containing, I believed, the race’s collective destiny. It was enormous and machined and smelled faintly of electric train. The IBM Selectric had arrived. “Watch this!” a classmate yelled, and lightly touched a key on the qwerty. A ball of metal flicked up and angrily struck the page with a sound like gunfire and a quantity of hot blood rushed up into my head. Later in the week I dropped by after school and, by arrangement, examined for one bracing, forensic hour the ball element’s strange magic, touching keys and flinching when the thing stuck.
Once I realized that the ball actually rose and turned and struck in one indescribably fast movement, I couldn’t get my mind around the design precision. The cipher-crusted little sphere knew somehow which of its coordinates held the necessary letter, and dutifully struck the page with ballistic quickness and accuracy. The mad ingenuity was almost paralyzing to contemplate. I remember thinking something like, “if we can do this, there’s no stopping us!”
Land of the Normal-Sized
Back in the 60s, the pop culture sci-fi zeitgeist saw all kinds of pulse-quickening stuff in the pipeline, and a generation of gee-whiz kids raised on television viewed the future as a gizmo-crowded adventure in which Progress was both means and end.
The Space Family Robinson blasted off to Alpha Centauri in futuristic 1997, a “sub-orbital spacecraft” in techno-sleek 1983 took a fateful wrong turn and crashed in a Land of the Giants (obliging its brave crew to pitiably flee cats, dogs, and giant rubbery hands), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s guppy-shaped future sub, the Seaview, plied the treacherous Seven Seas sometime in the indefinite 80s; and of course Star Trek’s Enterprise begins its contract-breaching “5 Year Mission” in 2265 or so.
Well. Here we are. We made it to futuristic-sounding 2017 without the help of Flying Subs, families heading out to colonize distant star systems or accordion-armed robots. We did have a sub-orbital airplane but they shut that program down when one of them crashed into a hotel in France. Still. Sometimes, in the evenings when I’m the last one to bed, I turn out all the lights and try to take myself back to the 60s and my fevered attempts to imagine the future generally, and my own destiny in particular. What will I look like? How long will I live? Will I fall in love? What will the rocket cars look like?
Trading Alpha Centauri for a Typewriter
In the wee hours with all the lamps turned off, our stereo’s “sleep” diodes burn like glowing red pinpricks. That and the running lights of dozing mobile devices scattered here and there punctuate the darkness of our living room. Frequently, when the family’s gone to bed, I’ll stand in the dark for a minute and try to imagine seeing this familiar scene from the perspective of my 60s “dreamy kid futurist”. I am actually able to subsume the present tense for seconds at a time, see that I am truly and actually inhabiting the Future; a time of workaday wonders a 60s kid might’ve got excited about.
But the fact is, the living room does not look meaningfully different from living rooms in the 6os, and crossing the street to buy a pair of blue jeans (as we used to call them) will not see you looking both ways to avoid the rocket cars. The cars still have wheels, our 300 million registered guns still fire hot lead, shoes and socks look pretty much the same. The big news is the typing. It’s everywhere. And with the advent of the personal computer and the high-octane productivity that swept in on its coattails—well, our workplaces are cubicled banks of typists, and the future (or the Present, as we call it) is really just constant typing. Lots and lots and lots of typing. The world’s wealthiest man is, after all, the inventor of virtual typing paper, if you can imagine.
Kids now begin their fealty to typing (or ‘word processing’ as it’s called these days, without irony) around the second grade—though giving them something to excitedly type about is often a more elusive goal, and anyway lower on the ‘preparation for life’ ladder, it would seem. Everywhere you look, the future is rows and rows of cubicles and people feverishly tapping computer keyboards. Whatever the actual work at hand is, it’s all about the typing. Even our bejeweled smart phones, the Age’s most totemic, world-changing invention, require typing. Lots of it, apparently. Look around.
Mr. Carnival, of all people, was indeed the chief harbinger of what we had to look forward to. At least until we get to Alpha Centauri.