Let's talk future.
This week is the golden anniversary of the opening of the 1964 New York World's Fair, when visitors flocked to Queens to see exhibits that included a guy flying around with his jet pack, Michelangelo's "Pieta," the brand-new Ford Mustang and Walt Disney's animated figurines singing "It's a Small World (After All)." I am not quite sure we needed "It's a Small World." Nice sentiment, terrible tune.
There were computers on display, performing exciting tasks like — looking up a date. (Peering forward, people almost always overestimated the possibility of flying cars and underestimated the potential of computers.) "You will be able to ask for the news of any date that you like," enthused a woman at the IBM pavilion, where visitors could experience what was supposed to be a futuristic information search. Participants got to write a date on a card, which they then stuck into a box about the size of two refrigerators. Then, after a little wait, a little electronic ticker tape would announce that on Oct. 29, 1950, King Gustav of Sweden had died.
When the fair opened, Isaac Asimov wrote a piece for the New York Times conjuring up a "Visit to the World's Fair of 2014." He was remarkably prescient on some points. He foresaw Skype, although he imagined we'd be doing it with our friends on the moon colonies. He was pretty darned close in predicting population growth and appropriately dubious about robot house cleaners. He knew we'd be going to 3-D movies but was overoptimistic about how much we'd like them. (If you're going to be a futurist, there's no point in looking ahead to a world with an exceedingly high level of technology that's dedicated to "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.")
The way people see the future can define their present. A century or so ago, when Americans were trying to imagine the year 2000, the talk was about ending social ills. The best-selling novel "Looking Backward" told the story of a man who fell asleep and woke up in a world where crime, unemployment and mental illness had virtually vanished, where college was free and laundry was cheap and people ate their stupendously delicious meals in communal dining rooms. It sold millions of copies and spawned both progressive movements and a long line of novels with heroes who fell asleep and woke up at the next millennium.
In 1964 at the fair, everyone was thinking about building stuff. General Motors presented a model of a 300-foot-long atomic-powered tree clearer that would be able to wipe out jungles and lay down expressways in a matter of hours. There were underwater houses! Underwater hotels! "In the early '60s, progress always seemed to be about cars and skyscrapers and gadgets to make your life easier," said Joseph Tirella, author of "Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America."
And what about our visions of the future now? Imagining things 50 years in the future, our novelists and scriptwriters generally see things getting worse — civilizations crash, zombies arrive, the environment implodes. We've certainly got problems, but it seems a tad overnegative.
Maybe it's because we've lived through decades of amazing technological revolution and been disappointed with the payoff. Ralph Nader — who published his classic indictment of the U.S. auto industry "Unsafe at Any Speed" in 1965 — remembers going to the 1939 World's Fair as a child and racing to the General Motors pavilion happily crying "GM! GM!" The exhibits he saw back then, Nader recollected, were better than anything that ever hit the market: "super electric cars, turbine cars. Just a lot of hope springing eternal."
And who would have imagined 50 years ago that we'd get to the moon and then give up on it? Microwave dinners really did arrive. But, like 3-D, the thrill is limited.
We can't even hold onto the things we thought we'd locked down. Just this week, the New York Times reported that Canada may have outstripped the United States when it comes to middle-class wealth. That seemed like a double-whammy. First, it was still more evidence of growing income inequality. Second, the Canadians didn't even seem all that excited.