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Entries in utopia (6)

Friday
Aug192011

This future was made in a facility that also processes peanuts (1982)

I've never thought of my allergies as a big deal. Sure, my peanut allergy has caused an emergency room visit here and there, and my dad used to pick me up from sleepovers because of my emphysema-like wheezing around cats. No big thing, right? But a few years back it seemed about time I went to see an allergy specialist and get a comprehensive list of the things my body hates.

I found myself shirtless, laying on my stomach in the doctor's exam room with twenty pricks in my back (which isn't nearly as scandalous as it sounds). A constant tingle ran through my body, but all I could think about was how comically small the exam room table appeared under my enormous body. I am most certainly not allergic to pizza and beer.

To administer an allergy test a nurse needs to prick your back with an assortment of allergens. Different types of trees, animal dander, molds and grasses were all made to come into contact with my delicate, nature-hating skin. After the pricks, it's a waiting game to see if your torso turns into a red, puffy Braille haiku. 

About twenty minutes later the nurse knocked on the door. I couldn't see the expression on her face, given my vulnerable position facing the corner like the bad kid being punished. But her inflection said it all. 

"Oh myyy!" the nurse said in that heavy Minnesota accent most Minnesotans don't think they have. "Well," she said with a pause, "you're allergic to everything!"

"Everything?" I ask, worried less about the consequences of allergies and more about the cocky "told you so" attitude my girlfriend at the time was sure to have upon hearing the news.

"Well, maybe not the... yes, yes, you're allergic to grass too."

I kind of guessed that one. My parents love to tell the story of when I was a kid and had just started to crawl. My dad spent a summer building a deck behind our house and he was able to leave me relatively unsupervised, as long as I was surrounded by grass. Sitting on a pastel pink blanket, I was content as all get-out not to traverse that sea of green, spiky irritants laid out before me. I've always been confused when someone appears pleasant while barefoot. I guess that's why I sometimes empathize with the wide-eyed technological visions of the 1950s. Their promise was one of control, of harnessing nature rather than being one with it. Domed cities, meal pills --science will have the answers.

And science did have the answers in the 1982 kids book World of Tomorrow: Health and Medicine by Neil Ardley. Ardley's book is filled with predictions about the future of health care, with an emphasis on self-assessement via computer. If WebMD and the rise of home genetic testing kits count, I'd say that this was a pretty accurate vision of the future.

Well, at least it was more accurate than the people who imagined hospitals in space.

 

By checking the genetic codes of parents and by caring for unborn babies, the children of tomorrow should be born in perfect health. A long life is lkely to lie ahead of them. But to remain healthy, everyone will have to look after themselves. As now, this will mean taking exercise, keeping clean and behaving sensibly to avoid danger. However, the world of tomorrow will bring other ways in which you can help to prevent yourself from getting ill.

Many people fall ill because they have an allergy. Something they eat or drink disagrees with them, or perhaps something in the air upsets them. Tiny particles of pollen blown by the wind give some people hay fever, for example. Others cannot eat food made from flour or shellfish without feeling ill. Often these people suffer for years before they find out what is wrong.

In the future you will be able to go to the doctor or a health complex to prepare yourself for a healthy life. Machines will take samples such as blood, saliva, hair and body wastes. They will measure them to find out exactly how your body reacts to food and drink and to substances in air and water. Then a computer will take the measurements and work out which things are likely to cause problems for you. It will produce a personal list of things to do and to avoid if you want to stay healthy and feel alert and full of energy. It is certain, for example to insist that you should never smoke. It may even recommend certain rules for making the best of your memory and intelligence. Following a list of rules might seem to make life a lot less fun. However, it would probably be no more trouble than taking care when crossing the road, for example.

Tuesday
Apr262011

Government of the Future (1981)

Children of the 1980s were presented with two possible futures for government in the book World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play. The first scenario is a nightmarish dystopia where governments track their citizens' every move and computers are curtailing freedoms across the globe. The second possible future is a utopia nearly achieving some form of direct democracy, brought on by the home computer and videophones, which enable citizens to become highly engaged in the political process.

It would appear that those of us living in "the future" wound up with a bit of both. Governments all over the world are certainly using technology to spy on their citizens -- though I would wager that Visa, Apple and Google know more about me than the U.S. government. But the evolution of tools like Twitter and YouTube has also provided your average citizen with easier ways to politically organize and educate.

Whatever your feelings on technology's role in government, I think we can all agree on one political truism... I'm right and those other guys are idiots.

Some people fear that computers will rule our lives in the future. They believe that information on everyone will be stored in computers, and that government officials will be able to find out anything about anyone at any time. It is possible that this will happen, and that some governments will use computers to limit people's freedom. However, it is just as possible that computers will make governments more open in the future, and allow people more say in the ways they are governed.

In a future where every home has a videophone computer system, everyone could take part in government. People could talk and air their views to others on special communication channels linking every home. These people would most likely be representatives of some kind -- of a political party, a union, an industry and so on.  But when the time comes to make a decision on any issue, everyone would be able to vote by instructing their computer. A central computer would instantly announce the result.

 This kind of government by the people is a possibility that the computer will bring. It could take place on any scale -- from village councils up to world government. In fact, it is more likely to happen in small communitites, as it would be difficult to reach effective national and international decisions, if millions of people always had to be asked to approve everything. Nevertheless, the computer will enable really important decisions to be put before the people and not decided by groups or politicians.

The computer could also affect the ways in which politicians will work. They could discuss the issues that affect the people they represent over public communication networks that would replace governemtn assemblies. In this way representatives could live among their electors and get to know them and their views much better.

 

Sunday
Jun012008

The Technotopia of 2000 (1962)

In 1962 the French weekly l'Express postulated about a technologically advanced utopia in the year 2000.

By the year 2000 all food will be completely synthetic. Agriculture and fisheries will have become superfluous. The world's population will by then have increased fourfold but will have stabilized. Sea water and ordinary rocks will yield all the necessary metals. Disease, as well as famine, will have been eliminated; and universal hygienic inspection and control will have been introduced. The problems of energy production will by then be completely resolved.


From the essay Food - the great challenge of this crucial century by Georg Borgstrom in the 1975 book Notes for the Future: An Alterative History of the Past Decade.

 

See also:
Our Friend the Atom (Book, 1956)
Closer Than We Think! Fat Plants and Meat Beets (1958)
Closer Than We Think! Hydrofungal Farming (1962)
Man's Future Beneath the Sea (1968)
That 60's Food of the Future
Solar Power of 1999 (1956)
Hubert H. Humphrey's Year 2000 (1967)

Wednesday
Oct242007

The End of the Future (1991)

In his 1991 book, Facing Tomorrow, author Thomas Hine opens with a decidedly pessimistic tone. The first chapter, "The End of the Future," expresses a feeling of betrayal that the world did not provide the future humanity was promised. An excerpt from that chapter appears below.

For at least two decades, no compelling, comprehensive vision of the future has captured the American imagination. Our culture is like a child raised without adults: We have no idea what we will be when we grow up. We don't know what to tell our own children, though we dimly suspect we are setting a bad example. We condescend to past visions of the future - the progressivist utopias of the turn of the previous century, the streamlined dreams of the 1930s, the jet age exuberance of the 1950s. But we have nothing to take their place.

Instead, our popular culture is filled with tainted dreams, manipulated horrific fantasies planted in the minds of innocents, which come true when Freddy Krueger, the sleep-invading slasher from the endless Nightmare on Elm Street movie cycle, comes to eviscerate the dreamer and most of her friends, relatives and neighbors. Today, we know all about what was wrong with the visions of the past and are, we tell ourselves, more realistic. But we are more limited, too. Besides, there's no evidence, outside of the movies, that a refusal to dream prevents nightmares from coming true.

When the world does not seem to be going your way, it is worth finding out which way the world is going. If progress seems self-defeating, it is time to come up with a new definition of progress. It's time for a new future, one that will enable us [to] make sense of the present and judge how the actions we take each day will shape tomorrow. We need to understand our past ideas of the future, in part so that we can understand the ways in which we have gone wrong. But we can't slap a new coat of paint on our old tomorrows. We need to conceive of our future new and whole, from the ground up. We have to examine our fears, to see if they are real, and our desires, to understand what we really want and what we can hope to get. Today, people become angry at the future because it is not going to provide what was once expected. We need a clearer idea of what we can anticipate, what we can achieve, what we can create, so that we can once again feel the exaltation of moving toward something we want rather than the bitterness of settling for less.


Progress to Counter Catastrophe Theory? (1975)
Going Backward into 2000 (1966)
Technology and Man's Future (1972)

Thursday
Sep202007

Technology and Man's Future (1972)

The introduction to the book Technology and Man's Future has a tone appropriate for 1972. The words seem to offer a first glimpse into true disillusionment with early 20th century futurism. And yet, the book nurtures remnants of optimism; of hope that the future may hold some version, however imperfect, of that shiny, happy future.

Below is an excerpt from the introduction to the book.

I grew up believing in a technological future. The picture of tomorrow's world that I carried around in my head throughout childhood years corresponded, more or less, to that which one might have acquired from any number of science-fiction movies or from such monuments to technology as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It was characterized mainly by neatness and order, miles of gleaming chrome, millions of buttons to push, and endless gadgets to do all the work. All of our "old-fashioned" ways of doing things were, I believed, to be replaced by new, modern, better ones. Automated highways would take the place of conventional roads; one nourishment pill in the morning would save us consuming three meals during the day. In retrospect, what I find to be particularly interesting in this childhood image is the fact that the technological future always seemed to be an end in itself. When adults in my life spoke of it, they implied its inevitability - with some interest and some, but not much, enthusiasm. No one seemed to care very much for the prospect, but it was "progress," and only a fool would try to resist its tide.

 

Similar notions were apparently the main themes of the Century of Progress International Exposition held in Chicago in 1933. In the great world's fair tradition, this extravagant celebration aimed to demonstrate what technology was capable of doing for humanity. In the process, it brought out dramatically what one author has called "technology's triumph over man." Upon entering the Hall of Science, one was confronted by a large sculptural group featuring a life-sized man and woman, their "hands outstretched as if in fear or ignorance." Between this couple stood a giant angular robot almost twice their size, bending down, with a metallic arm "thrown reassuringly around each." The visitor to the fair need not have searched far for the meaning of this image. It could be found in the Exposition motto: SCIENCE FINDS - INDUSTRY APPLIES - MAN CONFORMS.

As I grew older, I naturally began to question my childhood vision, putting aside a fascination with gadgets to ask myself what was lacking in this future. Why, despite all good intentions, did this image of the future always come out looking more like Brave New World or 1984 than Utopia? What was the meaning of "progress" in these terms, if no one ever asked whether it serves to make people happier?


See also:
Future Shock (1972)
Headlines of the Near Future (1972)
Progress to Counter Catastrophe Theory? (1975)
Going Backward into 2000 (1966)
The Population Bomb: Scenario 1 (1970)
The Population Bomb: Scenario 2 (1970)
The Population Bomb: Scenario 3 (1970)

 

Sunday
Feb112007

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy


I started reading the 1888 classic utopian novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. I'll be blogging about it on a "whenever I damn well feel like it" basis and I invite you to follow along at home. You can either read it free here or here or you can do what I did and buy a cheap copy on Amazon.

The book is set in the far distant future of 2000 when the inhumane practices of captialism have been replaced by a compassionate, human-centered post-capitalist utopia. What drew me to the novel was the fact that it was the most read book of its time and clearly speaks to an alienated public of industrial workers with hope that the future would be better. We can debate the political realities of such a situation all day long but again, I marvel at a world filled with hope for the future. It makes me wonder what a utopian society of 2100 envisioned in 2007 would look like.

Follow along if you please. I'm assuming I'll do a few chapters a week.

-Matt

(Note: The second free version of the book I link to appears to be from some Christian cult but I found their formatting to be superior to the Gutenberg/first link version. Just a warning.)