Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Retro-Future Shock

"From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is Fresh Air!"
Terry Gross' radio program and its theme song always thrill me with the expectation of a great conversation with great minds, musicians, celebrities, notable people. I am a lifelong fan of the Radio, or more often the potential of Radio even today. For me it is still an Empire of the Air, a technology from the 1920s that can excite a listener with intrigue, sounds, voices from distant capitols or local stations. It was the connecting web of the 20th Century; The News. It was shocking.
The other day on Fresh Air, Terry interviewed Alvin & Heidi Toffler, the authors of an influential series of books, particularly Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980). They are self-proclaimed Futurists who had a deep impact on American culture and the social evolution of urban society. They tapped into the prevailing paranoia of the post-nuclear age but also the countercultural urge for a utopian future.
The film adaptation of Future Shock (1972), shown at our elementary school, was unsettling to say the least. It scared the hell out of us. Orson Welles as a kind of Virgil leading us into a paranoid future world seemed to be a primer for The Panic Attack. It had tantalizing crumbs of wonder but a whole loaf of dread for what was to come.

As a child in elementary school in the 1970s, we watched many reel-to-reel films that were distributed throughout the school system in Alaska by teachers who lived the ethos of the time & place. Education was experiencing all the same seismic aftershocks of the 1960s as all parts of society. Alaska, especially, attracted free thinkers and in the wake of the Oil Boom had the funds to support extravagant facilities and supplies for its school system. Not all the experimentalism of the times worked. I recall the Open Classrooms idea of slide-away walls and 'integrated' ages as distracting & chaotic, but we enjoyed the latest technologies as well as a wave of electrified teachers. Many hippies wanted to change the world one child at a time, not to mention the draw of The Last Frontier, and Alaskan-sized wages.
Futurism was still a vivid idea in the early 1970s. You don't hear much about it anymore. Once, to say The Year Two Thousand was to imply a Great Society Will Emerge. The Future is almost an idea from the past now, replaced by Apocalyptism -- The Rapture, 2012, The End of Days. The Space Age is over and we are no longer Super Sonic.
It isn't over yet, is it? To watch Future Shock again and see that we didn't choose to live in quite that way is a strange relief. Did we solve the challenge of Future Shock? Mass Distraction is one solution, Poly-pharmacy another, changing shock to blunt obsession.
Some things did come true, though. I do plug myself in each morning to give myself stimulation, as it were, which does delight me a little bit.

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