Forget the present – we’re living in the future

by Max Sparber

It is time for a radical re-envisioning of Ö well, of time itself. We have been living in a dream of the present for too long now, and it is time we admitted the awful truth to ourselves: We are not living in the present at all. We are living in the future and have been for quite some time now.

In fact, I can pinpoint the exact moment when the future caught up with the present and overtook it. It was Oct. 4, 1957, the day the Soviet Union launched a basketball-sized satellite called Sputnik. It was the exact moment when the most absurd of science fiction fantasies suddenly seemed possible – even reasonable. It was the moment the United States shifted out of the plodding present and entered a universe that previously had existed in the vague terra incognito we called “the future” (the rest of the world has slowly been following our lead, marching with grim determination toward the future we now inhabit).

Now look at us. We are doing just fine, despite the alarmist position put forth by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book “Future Shock,” which looked, with a mixture of awe and dread, toward a decade that would include the development of the pocket calculator, the personal computer and the shaving-cream heater. Toffler defined the title of his book, and its principle theory, by claiming “future shock (is) the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” Toffler honestly believed that rapid technological transformations would leave folks a little discombobulated – one thinks of the Grant Wood painting of a lean-faced older woman casting gimlet eyes at a nearby candlestick telephone as though suspicious that a scheming Alexander Graham Bell had left it behind as part of a diabolical plot.

But we are not Wood’s suspicious matron, and had Toffler looked around, he would have seen that nobody really minded living in the future. Instead, they lined up in front of Pong machines, quarters in eager hands, anxiously discussing the development of the eight-track. Incidentally, this is a product that we now look upon with embarrassed nostalgia, despite the fact that most eight-track players still look as though they tumbled off the set of some stylized science fiction film – “Logan’s Run,” let’s say. We are so far into the future that the future itself seems a little outdated.

We still don’t seem to be experiencing much of Toffler’s future shock. We handle the news that scientists have unlocked the secrets of the gene with equanimity. Indeed, they seem to have taken far too long – here it is, the 21st century, after all, and we have just now gotten around to mapping DNA? We have just now gotten the knack of cloning? And where is that cold fusion we were promised? Somebody had best get to it pretty quick, or our genetically modified clones won’t be able to afford the gasoline needed to drive an automobile. And why the heck are we still driving automobiles? What is this, the Industrial Age?

No it isn’t. After all, almost everybody in the United States communicates with each other through little handheld devices that connect through satellites (foolishly, “Star Trek” labeled them “communicators,” when “cell phone” has such a pleasing ring to it). The Japanese have been hard at work on a robot that dances, having already mastered the more traditional variety of robot and set it to work building portable radios and then further mastered the robot dog and the robot goldfish. We have walked on the surface of the moon and sent remote control cars to the surface of Mars. Our world increasingly comes to us in digitized bits of information, spread via beams of light. Science fiction writers have nothing new to speculate about – weeks after cyberpunk fiction emerged, it was followed by actual cyberpunks who actually infiltrated multinational corporations via the phone lines and wreaked havoc. This isn’t the present, friends – we haven’t seen anything that looked like the present in two generations. If this isn’t the future, then there is no such thing as the future, and it will never arrive.

So I propose that we stop using the words “the present” to address our current place in time – it has been 45 years since that word had any real meaning, and, unless you’re getting ready to wear your poodle skirt to a sock hop or getting your zip gun ready for the rumble at the drag race, you’re not talking a language that anybody will understand. It is the future right now, and we keep plunging deeper into it, leaving the present behind us. By now the past is so long ago that it hardly seems worth remembering. Hell, even eight-tracks tapes hardly seem worth mentioning nowadays. Pretty soon we will exit the future into a time we do not even have a name for yet (the post-future? The hyperfuture? The Day-After-Tomorrowland?) and what will that look like? We have not even begun to imagine it.

I, for one, will bring my shaving-cream heater with me. Call me old-fashioned.

Max Sparber’s columns appear Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected]