Saturday, September 29, 2018

In the Year 2019

We watched Blade Runner the other night, the classic 1982 sci-fi thriller set in a future Los Angeles. The plot of the movie revolves around a police detective reluctantly coming out of the shadows to "retire" four replicants, genetically engineered humanoids, who had recently escaped from forced labor on a colozined planet and returned to earth, intent on causing mayhem while in search of their creator. The movie directed by Ridley Scott, was a loose adaptation of the 1969 novel by Phillip K. Dick called, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The film is visually stunning, combining old school film-noir with pre-digital special effects which hold up amazingly well 36 years after its release.

But for me the most compelling part of the film and especially the book are the moral and ethical questions raised about the implications regarding unchecked technology, and its impact on both the environment and ourselves.

That said, there was one nagging part I simply could not wrap my head around. The dystopian future portrayed in the film, takes place in the year 2019, (2021 in the book), which happens to be at this writing, next year. Now depending upon your point of view, we may indeed be living in a dystopian world at the moment, but not exactly the world of Blade Runner.

I understand artistic license and can easily see why P.K. Dick and later Ridley Scott would choose to set their stories in the not too distant future. Assuming that many of the people who would have seen the movie when it first came out would still be alive in 2019, the story has a far greater sense of urgency than were it set say, 200 years in the future. The same could be said for classic works set in a dystopian future such as George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949) As it is, these works have kind of a Dickensian poignance, harkening to Scrooge's question to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come:
Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be only?
Experiencing Blade Runner today as well as other works of fiction whose future setting is now the distant past, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief, realizing that these visions of the future did not come true, at least not exactly, not yet. We still have a chance if we heed the warnings. It goes without saying that's a big if.

The interesting thing about stories set in the future is what they tell us about the time in which they were created. Fifty years before Phillip K. Dick's novel was published, biplanes were all the rage and no one had yet dared to fly an airplane across the Atlantic. In 1969, a commercial supersonic jet made its maiden test flight. The Concorde which went into service in the early seventiescould fly between New York and London in about three hours, less than half the time it took a conventional jet liner. 1969 was also the year we first landed on the moon. Given the advances in aviation in those fifty years, there was no reason to believe that the advances in the next fifty would not be equally dizzying. But here we are fifty years later and commercial supersonic travel has been scrubbed. A human being hasn't left earth's orbit since 1972. Today it takes as long to fly from New York to London as it did in 1968, before Concorde. And if an American astronaut needs to travel to the International Space Station, he or she needs to hitch a ride aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Nor do we have flying cars. No vision of the future would be complete without flying cars and Blade Runner is no exception. As with aviation, automotive technology grew by leaps and bounds during the fifty year period before the publication of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ford Model Ts dominated the roads in 1919 and would still be in production for another eight years. In the fifties, the United States built its Interstate system of highways which would forever alter the landscape of America. The automobile and the infrastructure that supported it, changed the way we lived, how we built our communities, and allowed our great centers of humanity and culture, our cities, to crumble.

For most of the Twentieth Century, The Western world was in love with technology. There was great promise in the freedom that the Machine brought to mankind, the automobile being only one example. That reverence for the Machine could be found everywhere in the twenties and early thirties from fine art to film, music, industrial design and especially architecture. Art Deco masterpieces, such as the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in New York are perhaps humankind's greatest monuments to the Machine Age, and the hope for a brighter future, all made possible through the wonders of technology.

But there were also detractors in the arts who were willing to burst the technology bubble during the heart of the Machine Age. One of the most popular bubble-bursters was Charles Chaplin and his 1936 film, Modern Times. The film must have seemed hopelessly reactionary to audiences of that era, not just because it was a silent film made eight years after the debut of "talking pictures." *, but also for its denouncement of technology's contribution to the de-humanization of human beings.

Here is the most famous scene from that movie:

It turned out that rather being a reactionary, Chaplin was far ahead of his time. Five years later, Europe was at war and Chaplin, still working in the United States, made his most important (if not his most beloved) film, The Great Dictator. As life would never be the same again after that war, it is appropriate that The Great Dictator marked the final appearance of Chaplin's beloved signature character, The Little Tramp. Equally telling is that for his last appearance, The Tramp finally spoke, in this case as the humble doppelganger of a brutal dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, also played by Chaplin, who himself bore a likeness, (at least in his character's facial hair), to a real-life dictator. Or was it the other way around?  Anyway at the end of the film, Chaplin, who could just as well have been playing himself, gives a poignant, impassioned, gut-wrenching speech renouncing not only cruel immoral, dictators, but the abject failure of society to succeed in using technology for the betterment of humankind:

Charlie Chaplin saw before most, how technology, along with the better living it promised, might also bring us untold misery. The future would prove him right as World War Two gave us mechanized suffering and killing the likes of which the world had never seen, culminating with the droppping of nuclear bombs over two heavily populated cities in Japan, the dawn of the nuclear age. It wouldn't be long before people came to the realization that human beings would one day have the power to destroy all life on this planet.

Yet we clung to our blind devotion to technology and the promise that if we believed in it, life would only get better. World War Two was so horrible that when it was over, people fell hook line and sinker for any scheme to create a new and better world. Over the years in this space I have explored two such utopian schemes devised by world reknowned architects. Both the Swiss Le Courbousier, and the American Frank Lloyd Wright proposed we toss everything we knew about building places to work and live in the garbage and start with a clean slate. Each architect came up with a utopian scheme diametrically opposed to the other in many ways, but both relying heavily on on modern techology to bring about their ideals. Le Courbousier's uptopia, Radiant City was a densly packed urban environment where each function of the community would be distinctly separate, and everyone would live in apartment buildings reaching to the sky.

By contrast, Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City was a horizontal rather than vertical plan where agrairian life would be integrated into everyday life, where each family would be given an acre of land of their own. In 1945, FLW wrote:
To look at the plan of a great City is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor.
To him, cities as they had been built for centuries, was rendered obsolete by new technologies such mechanized production (which would one day presumably do away with the dehumanizing assembly line that we saw in the first Chaplin clip), electronic communication such as the telephone, telegraph and radio, and of course the automobile. Beacuse of these technological advances, the centralized city would, or should be a thing of the past, replaced by sprawling communities connected by highways where people would have the freedom to travel as they wished in their personal transportation devices, which Wright envisioned one day, be able to fly, as we can see here in this rendering from his 1959 book, The Living City:

The city of the future according to Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with flying cars
Le Courbousier's and Wright's vision of the future never materialized exactly as their creators envisioned, yet many of their concepts took hold and we continue to live with them today in the form of massive urban housing projects which were directly inspired by the Radiant City, and suburban sprawl, which owes its existence in no small part to the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Needless to say, more than half a century later, neither housing projects nor suburban sprawl turned out to be answers to all our problems, in fact in many cases, just the opposite. For the past thirty plus years or so, we have been undoing both the Courbousian and Wrightian utopias as fast as possible, in some cases with dynamite:

I was around in the sixties when the dream to build faster cars and rocket ships able to take humans to places where "no man had ever gone before" was still the was still the most potent vision of the future. After July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong uttered the words "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed", nothing seemed impossible. Yet for all its glory, the significance of our mission to the moon could best be summed up by the words of the last man to climb aboard the lunar module to blast off the surface of that dead planet. Eugene Cernan said after he returned to earth: "We went to explore the moon and in fact discovered the earth."

It's no accident that the environmental movement got a big push after the first photographs of Earth from outer space were made public. For the first time ever, we saw our planet as it really is, a small refuge of beauty and life cast adrift in a vast sea of emptiness. Above all for the first time ever we were unequivocally reminded that Earth and all its bounties, are finite. We were also reminded that the moon was not a good option. Those photographs showed to us in a very tangible way how much we needed to rethink the stewardship of the only home we have.

Needless to say, we won't be colonizing other planets anytime soon. While the subject was not directly addressed in Blade Runner, in the P.K. Dick novel that inspired it, there was a particular urgency to relocate earthlings to Mars as the story takes place after WWT (World War Terminal), which redered Earth practically unihabitable. A recurrent theme in the book are television "weather" forcasts which predict motion of nuclear fallout clouds rather than rain clouds.

Thankfully we have thus far avoided nuclear armageddon, however there is a less dramatic, but just as dire threat to the health of our planet. The conservation of our planet by curtailing pollution and conserving its resources became a rallying cry during the seventies. The conservation part really hit home after the supply of fuel was curtailed by the oil producing nations of the Middle East causing world-wide gasoline shortages, resulting in staggering price increases. Those who were not moved by the philosophical arguments of the environmental activists, were certainly moved by the hit to their pocket books. For the first time since World War II when gasoline was rationed for the war effort, Americans understood that conservation of resources actually worked to the benefit o hte nation. In that effort, nationwide speed limits were reduced in order to conserve fuel which led to another fringe benefit, reduced highway deaths. Consequently, automotive and aviation technology since then have moved away from speed and in the direction of efficiency and safety.

Obviously, technology has not stopped advancing in the past half century, it just shifted direction. Rather than transportation, the earth-shattering technological achievements of our time involve medicine and the computer among others. As we look with hope to the future with the help of these technoligal advances, there is a caveat. We must always remember that every technological innovation is a double-edged sword. Every tool we make no matter how wonderful it may seem, can be used to benefit mankind, or to harm it. With every new technological innovation, new ethical issues arise and we must be ever vigilent to use technology wisely.

Blade Runner's vision of 2019 did not become true, at least not yet, in part because of the work of visionaries like Charlie Chaplin and Phillip K. Dick who warned us of not being blind to the moral consequences of absolute faith in the wonders of technology and progress, and to not be afraid to learn from the lessons of history.

We still have a lot to learn if we hope to prevent life from imitating art. Interestingly enough, Blade Runner 2049 came out last year. I only saw dribs and drabs of it on a recent plane flight but from what I could tell, it's even more bleak than the original. I'll be 90 in 2049, and if I'm still around, I might just have a look at it to see how much came true. If that happens, I'll be sure to keep you posted.

* Modern Times like its predecessor, Chaplin's 1932 film City Lights, has a soundtrack. But with the exception of a musical number sung by Chaplin, and the occasional mumbled commands of the all-knowing and seeing boss of the factory projected on a future-like television screen, all the dialog is conveyed through title cards as in true silent movies.

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