“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” – Oscar Wilde

Spoof of retrofuture imagery: Rocket Science! It's a career ... in Space!

Progress ain’t what it used to be.

Like many who have been longtime fans of science fiction, the idea that technology and innovation could create a better world was one that I never doubted was possible. It was a concept that may have been rooted in fantasy, but it fueled a very real expectation that with the help of some highly intelligent people, and the technology they could create, we could all be living in a world straight out of a George Jetson cartoon. Complete with personal jetpacks, hover cars, and gleaming white condos towering a mile into the sky.

It is safe to say that progress and invention have become an integral part of the lives of every generation since the end of WWII. The blinding pace of innovation over the past 70 years has deeply impacted the quality of life for millions of people around the world, but it has also sustained a rather unrealistic vision of the future for multiple generations. If not an unrealistic vision, then definitely an idealistic one considering the political and corporate realities.

Over 25 years ago Omni magazine was asking just about every “great mind” they interviewed what they thought would happen as the year 2000 approached. In hindsight, some of the responses were telling commentaries on our current times.

In their May 1987 issue on page 124, the man who coined the term “macroengineering” and masterminded the England to France channel tunnel, Frank Davidson, said of the coming decades: “The writers of science fiction have more accurately forecast developments in the long-term future than so-called scientists attempting to forecast.”

In the January issue of that same year, Omni asked people they deemed “gifted at seeing beyond tomorrow” what they thought the world would be like in 2007 and after. Counterculture guru Timothy Leary said on page 40: “The biggest effect will be on blacks and members of other minority groups in this country. In the Information Age, to keep any poor kid from having a computer would be like keeping him from having food, medicine, shelter, or clothing now.” Idealistic, indeed.

But then a young Bill Gates said on page 38: “Probably all this progress will be pretty disruptive stuff. We’ll really find out what the human brain can do, but we’ll have serious problems about the purpose of it all.” More cautious for sure, and in the long run, the most correct prediction. But even Mr. Gates seemed to assume in his answer a much wider availability of real, society-changing technology than has occurred.

So what happened? I mean, it’s 2013 for Spock’s sake. We went to the Moon 45 years ago; shouldn’t we be vacationing in the Sea of Tranquility by now? Why isn’t there an inexhaustible flow of free, clean energy running to all our mile-high condos? And by the way, where the hell is my hover car? Admittedly, my new cell phone is the size of a postage stamp, but still.

The scions of technology, the men and women who have invented the hardware and software of our lives, they are considered brilliant. They have led an explosion of technological advancement that has supposedly revolutionized the world. No doubt they never miss a chance to remind us of it whenever they can.

So poverty and disease are things of the past now, right? Economic inequality has been rendered obsolete by the universal access to technology and – as important – information, right? We live long lives in peaceful concert with our environment now, right? Wrong.

It is shocking to realize, but we currently sit on the very real brink of species extinction. And there is simply no excuse for it.

As has been widely reported recently, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography has determined that the planet has passed the 400 parts per million threshold of daily mean carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Research has shown that 280 ppm has been optimal for humans in the past, but since we did not hold the concentration to 350 ppm, we could actually be in real trouble as a species.

According to the Scripps press release, the rate of warming is 100 times faster than what occurred at the end of the last ice age. By all accounts, 450 ppm looms in the immediate future. And science writer and paleontologist Peter D. Ward says in his 2008 book Under a Green Sky that 800 ppm is greenhouse extinction time, with palm trees and alligators in Alaska. Humanity won’t be adapting to a change like that, no way, not with all the technology on the planet.

So, it turns out that our “smartest” people have figured how to innovate our world just fine. Unfortunately, they haven’t seemed to figure out how to insure that our civilization survives its own deep seeded stupidity.

Maybe it’s time to ask how we went from dinking around with dreams of a utopian society in the clouds, to the extinction of the entire human species. As our world spins apart, maybe it’s time we redefined the meaning of “smart” and “progress.”

Exhibit A:

Microsoft and Amazon.com are both headquartered in Seattle, Washington. Interesting, since the United States Geological Survey report “How Vulnerable are Seattle Area Lifelines?” talks about how Seattle is threatened by not only the Seattle fault but the Cascadia fault offshore as well.

Basically, the Seattle area isn’t just vulnerable to 8.0 and 9.0 magnitude earthquakes, with its skyscrapers and precariously raised motorways, but also devastating tsunamis, “these long-period waves may particularly effect (sic) very tall structures and long structures such as bridges.” I am assuming the brilliant techies up there know how to use the Internet to find this stuff out?

Then head south, down the coast, and you run right into all the “geniuses” at Yahoo!, Google, Oracle, Apple, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and all the others in Silicon Valley.

Check with the USGS’s Earthquake Hazards Program 2008 forecast and we find that the Greater Bay Area’s chances of being hit by a 6.7 or greater earthquake in the next 30 years is running at “about 2 out of 3.” Is there any reason to believe that the odds have gotten any better over the last 5 years? Personally, if I lived anywhere that had a 2 out of 3 chance of killing me before I died of natural causes, I would at least think about moving.

And how about the past 100 years of San Francisco Bay area history in general? Did it ever occur to any of the more than 120 Nobel Prize laureates who have worked and lived in the area since the 1906 quake that at any moment the ground could open up and swallow them whole? It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

Who can say what the “Next Big Thing” coming out of these brain trusts will be, but it is a safe bet that the cutesy little invention won’t save one man, woman, or child from dying in future disasters we all know are coming. That’s after the last ten years of destruction by tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods. That’s with the constant threat of disaster hanging over most of their heads.

I would submit that the fatally obtuse nature of our so called intelligentsia didn’t just happen by chance. There are reasons why our current modern world seems to run more on the blind invention of things we can’t really afford, and the relentless innovation of things we don’t really need, than real creativity and vision.

Predictably, over the last 30 years, in particular, the technological and scientific advancements which were supposed to free us from work and propel us into the future have instead culminated with naked capitalism.

It has made us captive consumer witnesses to the inexorable “progress” of just about everything. As long as you can pay, you can get a taste of the future. That’s why it usually consists of smaller cell phones with bigger display screens, because the profit margin wasn’t high enough on that whole “live long lives in peaceful concert with our environment” thing.

Filmmaker Adam Curtis looked back over almost a century of consumer history in his 2002 BBC documentary The Century of the Self and highlighted one very interesting origin for not only many Americans’ carefully molded idea of progress, but also for the actual direction science and technology took. It was the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The many photos of the event shown in the documentary were in black and white but still managed to convey a vision of the future that befit the slogan: “Building the World of Tomorrow.”

And even though many of the scientists who helped plan the event complained of the lack of real science involved with many of the exhibits, millions of people were exposed to a brave new world. (The white 700-foot spire and the equally massive white sphere as focal points of the event were particularly nice touches.) Apparently the hard work of one Edward Bernays, creator of modern public relations and nephew of Sigmund Freud, had paid off.

Adam Curtis details how in an effort to combat a deep anti-corporate backlash running through America at the time, Bernays engineered a message at the New York World’s Fair that year which has endured to this day: Be assured America, some very smart people, working for some very benevolent corporations, are busy creating a Jetsons-style future. Automatic washing machines and radar ranges for us all! Well, for most…ok, just some. And so it began. (Lest we forget, George Jetson’s boss, Mr. Spacely, was the greedy, scheming, abusive owner of an interplanetary corporation.)

Adam Curtis makes a very good case during his investigation that the amazing potential of technological progress was corrupted on purpose; it was not merely a foregone conclusion. There were better ways to advance our civilization, only those ways wouldn’t have made the corporations enough money.

Incidentally, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook for 2013, the Atlantic region is in for 13 to 20 named storms,7 to 11 hurricanes, and 3 to 6 major hurricanes this year. That’s possibly as many as 6 hurricanes of Category 3, 4, or 5 strength. The NOAA report summed it up: “These ranges are well above the seasonal average of 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes and 3 major hurricanes.”

So Hurricane Sandy and the promise of more to come wasn’t enough to send the East Coast intelligentsia high-tailing it out of there? Really?

Hey, at this point, I don’t need a personal jetpack or a hover car, or a smaller “smart” phone, for that matter. What we all need is for even just a few of these “titans of science and technology” to let up on developing another “app” or condescending to Black people in Africa, and show some real leadership in this failing society.

(And I’m not talking about some hubristic tech fix for climate disruption. It’s that kind of arrogance that got us all here in the first place.)

How about the intelligentsia of this country demonstrating to us all just how intelligent they are by at least saving their own lives and spearheading the migration of people out of the seismic and climatic danger zones in which they roost? Yes, that’s before the disaster happens.

It would be the smart thing to do, and the example might even spawn a movement to help all the people who would love to move out of danger right now but simply don’t have the money or employment prospects to do so. Like so many of the poor and low income families in Oakland, California, living under the constant threat of destruction by the Hayward fault running through the city.

Maybe we should be reevaluating our ideas about progress, and our ideas about intelligence, because a lot of highly educated people got us into the complete mess we’re in right now. And most all of it was in the name of progress.

Want to know some authentic geniuses in my book? Those guys on that program Mountain Men on the History Channel. What’s that great line in the promo: “What do I do for a living? I live for a living.”

Surviving off the land, thriving in the wild with not much more than their wits, the big-time innovators down in Silicon Valley wish they were that smart. At least they will when, not if, the “Big One” hits.

Photo by John Manyjohns released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.

Robert P. Cox

Robert P. Cox