"With the deep, unconscious sigh which not even the nearness of the telescreen could prevent him from uttering when his day's work started, Winston pulled the speakwrite toward him, blew the dust from its mouthpiece, and put on his spectacles. Then he unrolled and clipped together four small cylinders of paper which had already flopped out of the pneumatic tube on the righthand side of his desk." FROM "1984"
How to Think About the Future:
It's not easy. Even Orwell had everybody still using department-store pneumatic tubes in 1984.
We have no trouble imagining rocket ships and air-conditioned pants, but sometimes we miss the most obvious things because we take them so much for granted.
Like horses. At the turn of the century, horses were part of everyone's life. You built your house around them, with stables and porte-cocheres, and you hired grooms and coachmen and stableboys to take care of them, and the streets had hitching posts, and "no standing" signs, and cobblestones so people could walk without sloshing. Public transportation, the cavalry, farming, the Pony Express, milk wagons, deliveries: Horses were everywhere.
Thirty years later, for all practical purposes, they were gone. Who would have thought it?
This is why most amateur prophets end up looking foolish. They overlook some huge change that is right around the corner. Which is careless of them because it just means they have forgotten the main principle of progress: Things start simple, then get increasingly complicated, until someone finally does something about it and they get simple again.
What this usually requires is a whole new way of looking at the problem in the first place. In brief, an invention.
When telephones first came in, wires were put on poles to run above the streets. By the 1890s, the average telephone pole in New York City had at least 10 crosstrees with a dozen wires on each. It was as bad as the El: you almost couldn't see daylight. People were born and grew up assuming that the sky would always be full of wires.
Then somebody had an insight, invented a multi-call cable, and more or less overnight the streets were cleared. The El went underground too.
In the '50s American houses bristled with TV antennas. They were part of the landscape, and we accepted them as such, along with big fat air-conditioners hanging out of the windows like panting tongues. Today we have cables and dishes and central air-conditioning, and we are about to forget we ever saw an antenna.
Prophecy is nothing but the knack of spotting the parts of modern life that are getting too complicated and anticipating the next stage.
Consider the car.
Someone once asked the remarkable visionary F.M. Esfandiary how he would solve America's terrible population explosion of cars, which as long ago as the '70s had taken over TV--thrillers consisted of cars chasing each other; comedies had Volkswagens for heroes--and which now can threaten the entire economy when people stop buying them.
Esfandiary, who has taught at NYU and UCLA, never thinks small. Cars didn't faze him for an instant.
"Eliminate them," he said.
The future lies ahead, as Mort Sahl would say. Try something like this:
At a stroke, traffic would disappear. So would rush hour.
Highways would stop being built. Farmers wouldn't have to stand out there with shotguns to stop the bulldozers. No more road crews filling potholes. No more detours. No more car loans, no more repos, no more auto insurance, or Chrysler commercials, or Toyota jingles. Think of the hole it would make in the classifieds. Lee Iacocca would turn to manufacturing manual typewriters. And in steel and rubber and glass and ball bearings and sparkplugs: Millions would be out of work, including 20,000 teachers of driver ed. What would become of the oil business? OPEC would wither away, and maybe even Exxon.
Outside the industrial areas, smog would go the way of tobacco juice as a public nuisance. We'd forget we ever worried about seatbelts, emission devices, air bags, Denver boots, drunken drivers, no-fault insurance.
Why, the Smithsonian would have to open a new museum just to take care of all the car stuff. Driving would be a snob thing, like horseback riding. Country squires would run their carefully polished vintage Thunderbirds around and around a paved track and award each other silver cups.
And the property released for other uses! All those parking lots! Six-story parking garages! Gas stations! Drive-ins! Shopping centers! Good God, no shopping centers!
It sure would be quiet downtown. Maybe they could grow asparagus in the fast lane of K Street. The Beltway could be turned into tennis courts, if we are still doing tennis by then.
So here we are: thinking about the future. Isn't this fun?
But wait. What about all those people marooned in the suburbs? Suburbs were built for cars, weren't they?
No problem. Everyone will have computers. Everyone already does. You won't have to go to work or school, just sign on. Read the papers by computer. Magazines. Do your shopping with a keyboard. These things are happening today.
Well, now we have done away with the complicated stage, and the cars are gone, and you can walk on a suburban street without getting arrested as a suspicious character. Now all we need to do is think up a new simplicity.
The key here is not to let the past clutter our thinking, like those Flash Gordon rocket ships that still had wings. When Esfandiary predicted commercial planes carrying 1,000 passengers, skeptics wondered how long it would take to get them loaded. ("Ticketholders for Rows 179 to 189 may now board . . .") He scoffed at such single-track thinking.
And he's right. At the same time Edison invented the electric light, he also invented the system to go with it, down to wiring and streetlights and central generators. Anyone who could get that big a plane in the air could surely devise a way to load it. Pods, maybe, with 10 passengers each, inserted into the fuselage like pills.
In place of cars we might revive an idea popular in the '40s, ahead of its time: individual planes or helicopters. The Ultra-lite is already here, a little one-seater hedgehopping plane with a motor you wouldn't trust on a refrigerator.
But that's the past talking again. Sooner or later someone will mechanize the Frisbee, and we'll have neat little manhole-sized flying saucers we can stand on, with guard rails. It couldn't be any more dangerous than crossing Wisconsin at M. Or, since we can transmit two-dimensional images in color, why not three-dimensional? You could teleport a hologram of yourself and watch it on a screen to make sure it didn't do anything you wouldn't do. One day we may see at the Shoreham a convention of teleported executives crackling with a blue nimbus like Alec Guinness.
Now that we have disposed of cars, we can think about another complication: money. Why do we need it? It's just a symbol, after all. We started to replace it with checks years ago, and then credit cards, but these are turning into complications themselves. Our wallets are beginning to get that skyful-of-wires look.
So what's simpler? Why not just plain naked numbers?
Give everyone a code number, possibly imprinted electronically on the bone inside a fingertip to prevent theft or loss, and everything from paychecks to gum machines will be run by an enormous charging system, visible only in the daily printout that you will get on your home computer.
I don't know. I'm not so sure I like this particular future. The Coffeematic eats my theoretical quarter, what do I do? Write to AT & T?
I kind of like the jingle of money. It has a homey sound. And dollar bills, those floppy old friends: I don't care if they are quaint. Whenever I see one, my heart gives a little tug.
Besides, is the Mall ready for a Smithsonian museum of money?
Still, it behooves us to keep thinking about stuff that can change, 1984 or not. I mean look: The future is going to happen in spite of us. It has to, because otherwise it would still be the present.
As the caterpillar said when he saw the butterfly, "Boy, you'll never get me up in one of them things!"