Somehow the future happened.
When I was a wee lad in Middle America in the early 1970’s we opened our Ginn textbooks in Social Studies class and learned about what
the future would look like when we grew up. Sure it had some features borrowed from the GE displays from World Faire Expositions (and probably a smackerel from the same
folks that influenced the yet-to-be-publishedFuture Shock), but strangely the description isn’t far different from where we are today.
(For those of you too young to know Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, I’ll wait for you to Google it.)
We were told that we’d live in places with large concentrations of population. When I was a kid, a majority of Americans lived
in towns with populations less than 250,000. Now a majority of Americans live in towns bigger than 250,000. We were told that the cities of the future would be
combinations of work, retail, and housing in massive complexes. It’s been reported, for example, that King of Prussia, Pennsylvania near where I live that a
billion-dollar plan will lead toward such a configuration of work, retail, and housing spaces. I recently visited Minneapolis, which features long stretches of skywalks
that combine massive buildings so that a person can work, live, and play and not go “outdoors” if the weather is messy.
Elon Musk’s rocket company recently had a successful vertical landing of a rocket. The stores have seen a bonanza of artificial,
nutritionally-balanced energy bars that could replace traditional food. Sadly, the only thing missing is still the jet-pack or the flying car.
I want my jet-pack.
So while I was busy doing other things, the future happened.
You probably hadn’t noticed, but there’s a feature of the future of the Ginn textbook that I haven’t mentioned yet.
In the future, we were told, more and more jobs would be done by machines.
This has become ever more and more true. That Ginn book was probably written on a manual typewriter. Future Shock was, if you can imagine it.
Now I write this column on an electronic machine smaller than the IBM Selectric typewriters that made the old manuals obsolete.
Who needs to collate documents anymore? That’s done by the machine.
We were told that in the future, more and more jobs would be done by machines. And so it has come to pass.
This brings us to the problem of jobs.
If you are a supporter of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in the current presidential elections season, I’m told by the media that
I don’t know that you’re angry. A certain branch of media stereo-types tells me you are. Are you?
Well, let’s assume that you’re hopping mad. The thought is that you’re mad about jobs and economic disparity.
Bad trade deals, Wall Street writ large, nefarious foreign folk, unchecked rapacity, and weak-willed politicians combine to make life bad
for us all.
That’s easy enough to understand, I guess. But I think our problems are deeper and more subtle.
I don’t disagree, I guess, with the list of bads. Wall Street, I’m sure is full of people eager to take financial advantage
of people like me. Get me into a house, split the mortgage up a million different ways, make money off an arcane gambling system known only to insiders with advanced and
complicated computational wizardry – ok I’ll buy that’s evil and criminal, and I’ll support more Wall Street suits breaking up rocks at the
Let’s break up the banks! Yeah!
Then what? What’s next?
The subject of power, money, and politics is complicated and boring in its particulars. Why Wall Street in particular? What
about the military-industrial complex?
The effect of having and growing a huge military and armaments structure has its fingers more subtly and insidiously in the lives of more
everyday Americans than we often realize. Tell the good Republicans of Oklahoma that we should take Tinker Field out of Oklahoma City. Close it down. Government
is bad, and we need less of it. But please, not those jobs. Our military complex is everywhere and in everything. Our constant need to have a military and use it in some fashion is problematic.
What about the education testing complex? The standardized testing boondoggle costs more than a billion dollars and makes a mockery of
our educational system. But I don’t hear calls to break that system up.
But enough. Say we break up all of the power centers. Say we find the means to moderate the economic excesses of wealthy
elites. Say we manage to turn the dial from dystopia to utopia.
We still have a major problem. The future happened.
What will we do with the people?
One of the major problems of utopias as well as dystopias is the question of what will the people do? When Sir Thomas Moore invented Utopia in his novel of the same name, he made people into communist farmers – a faintly insulting view of the common folk by an elite lawyer who worked in lofty positions.
One of the myths that continues to be de-bunked is the re-growth of American manufacturing in recent years. But that myth has
“legs” because the growth of manufacturing hasn’t led to correlative growth in jobs. Productivity grows. But it grows because of machines that do
work. Whether they’re robots on the line, or they’re copy machines that collate and staple; machines do more labor today than any time in the past. And
every indication is that we will continue to do replace jobs with machines.
What to do with the people? We don’t need a secretarial pool anymore to mimeograph and collate the copies. It’s
incredibly unlikely that we’ll go back to that old system. And that separation from the old system is only likely to accelerate.
From what I understand, currently the majority of young men between the ages of 18 and 34 in America live with their parents rather than
with a spouse or partner in their own dwelling.
On the one hand, we need to find work for folks. We need to find jobs for people to go to that allows people to be productive.
Conversely, we can’t revert to the false dream of the old Soviet system of full employment derived from fake jobs that don’t
really mean anything or do anything.
I think that the futurists who worked on the Ginn book hoped that we’d all become artists and poets and dancers and the
like. This is a false hope.
While everyone has some measure of creativity, not everyone has the desire nor capacity for artistic creation.
Millions of people are being displaced across our planet – by war, by disease, by the desire to make a better life. Global
climate change will likely accelerate more of this churning of the human population.
What are we going to do with the people?
We in the arts need to do a few practical things.
1) We need to keep telling the stories of the human experience. Any day that we add to the empathy or understanding of being human, is
a day that we’ve done our job.
2) We need desperately to make certain that we educate children in the arts so that they have a means to access the humanizing world of the
arts and not fear the arts as something that would be beyond them.
3) We need to find a way to help everyday folks enhance their creativity. Our education systems need to change to allow for
creativity training. With the vast number of challenges that await us we need more people working at their creative best to help humans move forward.
If we can’t manage all three, perhaps we can get at least two. Generally most people want to continue doing what they’ve
been doing. Change and reform challenge our precious connection to tradition and habit.
In a world with more machines and less laborsome work, we need to figure out what to do with people.