Friday, January 13, 2017

The World of Tomorrow

I had loaded up my car for a cross-country road trip; I was starting a new career, and while I could have flown to my new home and had my car shipped at company expense, my inner 13 year-old would never forgive me.

FIG 1. An overview of < 1/4 of the collection.
FIG 1. An overview of < 1/4 of the collection.
We Americans are a peculiar culture in that we have no real mythology or mythos which we use to define ourselves. This is why we look at 150 year-old buildings like they're the Roman ruins, and establish charitable societies to preserve the history of these dusty old hardware stores. I honestly never thought deeply about out lack of mythos; the line from earlier was just something I parrot when asked why a grown man still reads comic books. It didn't sink in until I was on Route 66, by the NM/TX border when I stopped for gas (at Russell’s Truck and Travel Center, if you’re in the area). I saw that they had a free car museum, so I stopped in, as I saw nothing but flat land for several hours, and I would continue to do so for another two days. It was more than a car museum though -- I stumbled into the Temple of Kitsch.

FIG 2. Much of this store is a memorial to going to the store.
Having lived in America all my life, I was no stranger to these large, elaborate displays of Americana. (Americana is one of America's chief exports.) However, this was by far the largest. I took lots of photos to document the place, because my grandma enjoyed travelogues. Looking around caused a lifetime of kitch displays to congeal in my mind, and I came to realize there were three persistent themes in everyone of them:

  • Cars.
  • Gas stations.
  • Carbonated beverages (which because of my regional dialect, shall be referred to as "pop.")
FIG 3. "They're like an iPod, except they weigh 700 lbs."
-- "Weird Al" Yankovic, explaining  jukeboxes to his
7 year-old daughter, who had no concept of a jukebox.
While kitsch displays commonly include other things (e.g., juxeboxes, record albums, movie posters, and Marx toys), < 90% of these displays are pop, car, or gas-related. I could see why these things belonged in a museum, but I could understand why they were in a museum -- nothing historic ever happened here; they were historic for merely being old. They weren’t relics of what American life was; they were relics of what Baby Boomers wished it was.

That's what it means to be an American in the eyes of the Baby Boomers -- to have bought pop at a gas station between 1946 and 1972; and the American culture exists largely to recreate that experience. That struck my as being extra poignant, because I was driving across America at the time, and had done nothing but buy pop at gas stations for two days straight -- and it wasn’t that great. Thinking deeply about it, I've only ever had four memorable experiences in over 35 years of runs to gas stations, convenience stores, and bodegas -- this anecdote was one of them -- and the other three weren’t anywhere near shrine-worthy. The Baby Boomers meticulously preserve antique cars, gas pumps, and pop paraphernalia -- because to them it is America -- the Real America™.

This is also funny and sad, because I also stumbled upon the real Real America™ about 10 miles from there, when I pulled over at the first safe opportunity to find my trusty pee bottle, which was lost in the shuffling clutter of my fully-laden gypsy wagon. (While I had gone to the restroom at the truck stop just 10 minutes earlier, I was suffering from epididymitis at the time, and I had to keep my bladder perfectly empty at all times to escape the pain.) As I was scanning for 5-0 before letting Curious George out, I saw it there before me -- the real Real America™

FIG. 4. I just got a new cell phone a few days earlier, and I didn't figure out how to do panoramas yet.
This was it. This is what that collector spent their life trying to rebuild -- and they did everything in their power to do so, shy of actually doing it. By preserving sterile shrines to the Baby Boomer's concept of Real America™, the real Real America™ further deteriorates from neglect and the urine of transients.

In a rapidly changing world craves nostalgia for the sense of familiarity and continuity it provides. rump was able to manipulate those feelings with the slogan "Make America Great Again," which speaks of longing for an indefinite simpler time which may or may not have ever existed. Additionally, it's a loaded statement -- you can't express any form of dissent or criticism without implying that you're actively trying to make America worse. You can't fight against a statement like that, and it united all the neocons, racists, and technophobes under a single common narrative. There's no singular, cohesive narrative for all of the secular, liberal, progressive, feminist, green, LGBT, and post-cap movements; while there's a lot of cross-pollination between cliques, each is walks along their own path to the mountain top.

While we can't fight against the slogan "Make America Great Again," or the zeitgeist which enabled it to bring Trump to power -- these can be pushed farther, and co-opted into serving progressive agendas. Instead of reaching back to relive an idealized past, we must reach back even farther to a time when people looked forward to the future.

 "The World of Tomorrow" was the theme of the 1939 New York World's Fair, the high-water mark of American optimism. In the days leading up to World War II, Americans were collectively recovering from the hangover of the Great Depression. The New Deal put the destitute to work, laying the infrastructure for a new country, succeeding where Reconstruction failed. No one had seen anything like the 1939 New York World's Fair before, or since. It inadvertently invented the whole genre of futurist film, which tried to cash in on its success with innovations on display explained by tiny-voiced narrators. This is also why much of science-fiction cinema makes use of Art Deco motif.

Many of the ideas an innovations of yesteryear have come and gone. There's a RadarRange in every kitchen and breakroom. I'm on my ninth home computer, and I haven't owned a landline phone or made a purchase from a record store in 13 years -- none of which is strange. However, things are different; the World War II generation at least understood what their World of Tomorrow would look like; they had films to guide them; they knew what to expect. We're on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and many of its results are too wild to fully comprehend. Life will be fundamentally altered; it will not be different, but discontinuously different -- the 2030's will be as incomprehensible to the children of 1950 as a medieval peasant would have been in their time.

Change is the only constant, and it's inevitability can be conscripted for political gain. While the conservatives controlling the US government work to ensure hegemony, what stops those works from being torn down 25 years from now, when all of the Baby Boomers are dead? In the end, the Millennials will win all political debates, simply because they will be the ones remaining. When tomorrow comes, the World of Tomorrow comes with it.

The World of Tomorrow is the slogan and narrative which can join all of the  secular, liberal, progressive, feminist, green, LGBT, and post-cap movements; as each seeks to build the World of Tomorrow in their own way.  Additionally, there's no way to fight it -- not just because of its inevitability -- but because it too is a loaded statement. Opposing the World of Tomorrow automatically frames opponents as contrarian luddites.

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