December 1, 2022

Stop with the Jetsons nostalgia! – PRINT Magazine

I’m a big fan of Jim Pethokoukis, and highly recommend his Faster please! newsletter. I’m also a fan of Adam Thierer and his arguments about the importance of “innovation without permission” and “evasive contractors.” So I was glad to read Jim’s recent report Q&A with Adam– except for one small thing. It begins with Jim’s favorite cultural obsession, 1960s sci-fi nostalgia:The 1960s were full of upbeat science fiction, including The Jetsons and star trek. Doesn’t the fact that the 60s were followed by the pessimistic 70s sci-fi show just not matter?

In the post-Relian tradition of attacking my allies’ arguments (I call it taking them seriously, while my husband calls it stabbing people in front), let me make a few points about this fixation (not just by Jim) on 1960s pop science fiction and recent dystopian works.

1) The Jetsons was no more science fiction than The Flintstones was archaeology. It was, like its Stone Age partner, a mid-century family sitcom… i love lucy / Honeymooners / Father knows best with different sets and more silly jokes. The commentary (as it is) on technology consists mostly of complaints about devices that break down and cost too much. Automation also means that George and Jane Jetson do nothing all day except push a few buttons. If they were real, their lives would be incredibly boring. (The feminine mystic was a bestseller for a reason.) The show is definitely not star trek.

The Jetsons is graphically appealing, but it only works because we don’t take it literally as a portrait of the future. The Jetsons live in a world without trees, grass or privacy. Anyone in a flying car can look directly into their windows, which also appear to be open all the time. People live in the sky for no other reason than it makes for cool designs. You cannot walk around the neighborhood. Have you ever wondered, What’s on the ground in The Jetsons? (Spoiler: “The homeless and the walking birds.”)

2) star trekThe fundamental call of was not about the future or the technology per se. The show depicts a setting in which intelligent people have new experiences and learn new things, solve important problems, and forge deep friendships. No one worries about money or office politics. The show’s values ​​are human. Everyone’s work is important and the boss deserves respect. As I learned in a large survey I did during my research The power of glamorfor many of his fans, star trek represents an ideal workplace.

star trekThe vision of a nerd-friendly universe made the future glamorous, but only for the select few for whom that vision resonated. During the initial release, star trek had bad grades. Most people didn’t find it particularly appealing. Its success in pop culture dates back to the syndicated reruns of the 1970s, which is when I saw it. (The first fan convention was in 1972.) By then, its New Frontier spirit, complete with Cold War analogies, was already out of step with the times. The show attracted fanatical devotion in part because popular culture offered little (right?) other celebration of serious nerds and their values.

3) Dystopias are a far cry from mainstream Hollywood products. Personally, I worry more about the pervasiveness of drug company villains and complex government conspiracies. (Have you ever seen Scandal?) But I get why tech horror obsesses DC politics buffs. They search for films about AI, or climate change, or fill the dystopian vacuum, and find plenty of evidence of anti-technology attitudes that infect the culture.

But Hollywood’s greatest movies are not dystopias. You may have heard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a little big. It’s also technologically optimistic science fiction. Tony Stark! Wakanda! The Pym particle! Yes, sometimes you get Ultron, but if you think Hollywood only serves tech gloom and doom, you definitely aren’t reading Variety.

Meanwhile, on the prestige side, there are films like His (2013), Arrival (2016), and Everything everywhere all at once (2022). All have a heart, as well as a nuanced and non-negative view of technology. And I would say that the future of AI is likely to be enhanced by the existence of thought-provoking movies like Ex-Machina.

4) The graduationreleased in 1967, was a contemporary of the original star trek. A better question to ask about popular culture and the pessimistic turn is why this scene was so powerful. What made people find this scary and ridiculous career advice? Not dystopian sci-fi movies.

5) In chapter three of The future and its enemies I adopt a maxim of Henry Petroski to explain the evolutionary nature of progress: “Form follows failure”. To quote the book:

Far from being a utopian concept, this sense of progress recognizes that life is not perfect, that all improvement requires ingenuity and work, and that different people have different notions of what constitutes “better”. idea. “Form follows failure,” sums up civil engineering professor Henry Petroski, whose popular books explore the history of such mundane objects as zippers and crotches:

The form of things made is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived defects, their inability to function properly. This principle governs all invention, innovation and ingenuity; it is what motivates all inventors, innovators and engineers. And a corollary follows: Since nothing is perfect, and, indeed, since even our ideas of perfection are not static, everything is subject to change over time. There can be no “perfected” artefact; the perfect future can only be a time, not a thing.

As soon as we have something that improves from the past, we see what is wrong. Unmixed good humor does not get things done. Dissatisfaction yes. What is true for “made things” is also true for artifacts and social and cultural practices. The achievements of one generation are like unsolved problems for their successors.

The “plastic” scene in The graduation does not apply to polymers. They are an economically privileged young generation who feel trapped in the pursuit of inauthentic lives. For a man who lived through the Depression and World War II, the prospect of security in a growing high-tech industry is alluring. For Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, it’s horrifying. He doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows it’s not a job at Dupont.

When I saw The graduation more than a decade after its release, I have not found it compelling. But if you’re concerned about preserving technological and social dynamism, you need to take the dissatisfaction the film represents seriously. The graduation did not create this discontent. He reflected it. As I wrote in this test:

In a liberal order, however imperfect, the competition, criticism, innovation, and endless pursuit of better ways that characterize economic dynamism also breed cultural dynamism. Free individuals exercise their voice and come out. They use what I have called “criticism by expression” and “criticism by example” – otherwise known as complaint and entrepreneurship – to shape new norms and institutions. And since culture and economy are not, in fact, separate spheres, the two forms of dynamism mutually influence each other.

Culture is just as complex, dynamic and unpredictable as science, technology or markets, and just as driven by discontent.

In 2014 I wrote a Bloomberg column on these issues, which you can read here.


The Kindle edition of The fabric of civilization is on sale for $3.99. At this price, it’s worth buying even if you own a printed copy, just in case you want to look it up.

Also, here is the periodic reminder that the references for The fabric of civilization are online here.

How Spider-Man Led To The Invention Of The Prisoner Ankle Monitor

Will California law allow this 2,300-unit project, despite local NIMBYs? (If you read my recent column on Atherton, you could guess the answer.)

How Spock became a sex symbol (Bloomberg column I wrote when Leonard Nimoy died)

Interview with me on The power of glamor (old but good!)

Do you have a positive vision of the future? Participate in my competition, on which you can find out more here.

This essay was originally published on Virginia sub-pile. picture by Brian McGowan on Unsplash.