I was walking in a dripping rain yesterday, on my way to pick up my kids after taking the bus. It was one of my car-free days of splashing in puddles, something I enjoy a lot. The gas station at the corner drew my attention, and I realized that I hadn’t eaten yet that day. It was time for a snack.
I went in and found my favorite, a packaged burger-like creation called a “Double Char Broil Deluxe”. They don’t call it a burger because it has so much soy protein in it, probably to extend shelf-life. I love the things. After I popped it in the microwave and watched the packaging swell up like a balloon, a strange thought occurred to me:
No popular futurist ever saw a moment like this coming. Except maybe “The Jetsons” or possibly “Soylent Green”.
Think about how people ate 50 years ago. It wasn’t food from a gas station, and it wasn’t consumed while walking. They also had a tendency to know just what they were eating, too.
Now, none of this is very important, unless it comes up as part of a lawsuit filed by my heirs. Yet it highlights one of the big problems common to those who want to predict our future for various reasons. Futurists are typically enamored with technology and all the wonderful things it will bring to our lives, and oblivious to the side effects, big and small.
Staying with the gas station for a bit, there is a beautiful station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright just outside of Duluth. One of the great features of it is a massive second story lounge, built on the premise that as we use cars more and more as our connection to the outside world, the gas station is the logical place people will linger. While that is true in the lower-income Cutler Ridge neighborhood where I grew up, it’s rarely true among the middle class. This magnificent lounge has nearly always been dark and empty.
Yet it shows that as Wright imagined a “Usonian” house with a carport and a large lawn, thus inventing the suburb, he realized there would be side effects. He simply was not able to think his way through all the changes the car would bring to the world. He never imagined that everything would have to be reinvented, not just the gas station.
The fatal flaw in any of this is that the technology always comes first when thinking these things through. The people are second. Filling the needs of people, such as an empty belly, will be done by someone making delicious soy patties somewhere. But those basic aspects of life are off the radar to those who imagine the future. They have to come later, and come in packages and forms that don’t see all that wonderful.
True, it does all work out. Humanity will assert itself, and a hungry people on the go will be fed one way or the other. But does that create a world that we really value, a world that really gives us the emotional and physical nutrition we need?