2000 VS. 1930

 

Copyright 1998, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)

 

These days it's a given that the onrush of progress has traumatized us. All these newfangled, whiz-bang gadgets, like computers and cell phones and satellite dishes and surgical lasers and mag-lev trains and assembly-line robots: it's enough to make your eyes spin. And then there are all the new terrors, like street gangs and road rage and carjackers and Sarin gas and AIDS and suitcase nukes and (most horrifying of all) HMOs. People want to run away screaming and hide in a cave. "Future shock" has struck with a vengeance. How can we cope?


So far we've had the Reagan Revolution, "family values," back-to-basic schools, the simple-living movement, religious fundamentalism, swing dance, and outdoor shopping malls. We've also had the Unabomber and eco-terrorists. Is it enough?

Two hundred years ago, the Luddites answered the Industrial Revolution by smashing the looms. (Today your shop foreman would have you fired if you tried that.)

One hundred years ago people began migrating, in mass waves, into the cities. Within a couple of decades most Americans dwelt in urban centers. Those must have been heady - sometimes frightening - times: the "shock of the new" would have stung people on a daily basis. Yet they thrived in the new environment. By 1930 most of the big-city regalia were in place: cars, roads, plumbing, skyscrapers, 9-to-5, the works.

Here's an odd notion: our lifestyle hasn't much changed in seventy years. The urban experience is basically the same as it was a lifetime ago. Despite the wondrous inventions and discoveries of late, our lives aren't all that different. Yet we get ourselves all in a snit by changes that are NOTHING compared with the upheaval faced by the millions who moved - decades ago - from their quiet, candle-lit farms into the crowded, noisy, neon-glowing wonders of New York and Chicago and St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

What? Say again? Things haven't changed much lately? Come on!

Okay, let's inventory our city lives in 2000 and compare them to an urban life in 1930. How much has really changed? (1930 differences are in parentheses.)

 

AIDS (polio, smallpox)

airplanes

automobiles

cigarettes

compact discs (78-rpm records)

computers - NEW!

dance clubs (night clubs)

diesel trains (steam trains)

drive-by shootings

drug problem (liquor problem)

electric lights

expressways

high-rises (skyscrapers)

hospitals

indoor plumbing

Internet - NEW!

movies

newspapers

nuclear bombs - NEW!

office jobs (factory jobs)

paved streets

radios

rap & rock (jazz)

refrigerators (iceboxes)

street gangs (Mafia)

subways

telephones

television - NEW!

traffic jams

vacations in the country

 

This list isn't exhaustive, of course, but it gives the outlines. Looked at this way, life in 2000 sure seems pretty similar to life in 1930. Oh, all right, there are a few new things that have changed our lives; still, when was the last time you were actually nuked?

"But television!" Okay, couch potatoes, consider this: we've had TV now for FIFTY years. (We'd have had it in 1930, but the Depression and World War II got in the way.) Where's the future shock in that?

"But computers!" Okay, nerds, what's the "killer app" of the Internet? E-mail! It's quick, but mostly it replaces long-distance charges and snail-mail. (In 1890s London you could courier a message across town in minutes. So: it's been done.) I adore e-mail, but basically it's an improved version - much appreciated - of what I used to do, i.e., write letters.

"But computers!" Right again, nerds. Computers WILL change everything. They're changing things now. But they haven't so altered our urban lifestyle that we really notice it yet.

And there's my point: we're whining like Luddites about changes that will seem minor compared to what's ahead. If you have trouble setting the clock on your VCR, don't worry: in the future it'll set itself. Wait till you own a machine that breaks, then FIXES itself: THAT's a change in lifestyle.

Robot butlers for everyone. Holographic home entertainment. Vacations on the moon. Sideways elevators that whisk you down to the local supermarket or tote groceries directly to you. Entire towns tucked away in the woods, largely unnoticed by the casual tourist. (I'm not kidding: they've already invented the design strategy, and it's amazing.) Solar cars that never need gas. Weekly public voting via cable-tv. Videophones that finally work! The possibilities are endless. We've hardly begun to experience the really new, different, amazing, scary, disorienting, exhilirating future we're bound to invent.

So let's stop complaining about petty changes and start thinking up a truly new urban future. And let's not settle for anything less than total awe, like what those farmers felt - decades ago - when they first moved to the city.


 

If you find any part of this work quoted without credit to the author, please let him know! Thank you. jimhull@jimhull.com

 

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...And Readers Talk Back!

 

"I'm for total awe. And for life like the birds. Migrating in body (which is what we really couldn't do a lot of before), and in mind too. Just driving on the freeway is ecstasy - flying in formation. The communicating bit is definitely getting better! Hip hip for the coming changes." Ginger Berglund, chanteuse

 

"Bronx River Parkway in Westchester County was, I think, [ca. 1930] a divided road, but hardly a zoom-along highway. I have many memories of Sunday afternoon drives when my parents put all three kids in the car and went for a drive, but often we were in long, slow traffic lines returning to our suburban home from, e.g., Bear Mtn. - single lanes. Bronx River Parkway (BRP) had wonderful 'thank-you marms,' little raised bridges . . . . Whenever we came to such a little bridge we'd all shout, 'go faster,' so we'd get a mini-roller-coaster ride." Sue Hull, author, mom

 

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