It’s 2016. So, where are our jetpacks? Our hovering skateboards? Where are our colonies on Mars? And what about the totalitarian dystopia?
For as long as anyone can remember, Americans have pondered the possible future—from the flying cars and 3-hour workdays of The Jetsons to World War III and nuclear holocaust. And sometimes, we’ve made those dreams come true—or at least, we’ve tried. On this episode of BackStory, Brian, Ed and Peter kick off the new year by asking what past visions of the future can tell us about the times that conjured them.
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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. Americans, it’s often said, are a forward-looking people, a people more focused on the good things to come than on the challenges of the past. Then again, the scenarios they’ve looked forward to haven’t always been very rosy.
MARIA LANE: Earth is going to dry out just like Mars, and then it’s going to dry out even more just like the moon, and it’s going to be a dead rock rolling through space.
ED: Today on the show—how Americans in the past have imagined the future, from the optimistic dreams of early immigrants to the dystopian fantasies set in the nation’s biggest metropolis.
BRIAN: There are floods and earthquakes and bombs and riots. All of these play a different role.
ED: We’ll consider what future thinkers have gotten right and what they fail to see coming.
MATT NOVAK: There are no people of color in The Jetsons. Jane, the mother, doesn’t work outside of the home.
ED: A history of the future in America coming up on BackStory. Don’t go away.
ROBOT: I should have all the answers for you in about 10 minutes.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Brian, Peter, I have a little challenge for you.
PETER: Oh oh.
ED: I’m going to describe three scenarios, and you’re going to tell me what they have in common. OK. Here’s the first one. There are these two guys, Mike Donovan, Gregory Powell, and they’ve been tasked with investigating an abandoned mining operation. The conditions are harsh. And it so hot, in fact, these men can’t even go outside. They have to stay in the mining base. And when everything starts going to pot, they turn to the only one amongst them who can withstand the intense heat of the sun, and that’s a robot named Speedy.
PETER: I love the sound effects, Ed.
ED: Got that?
ED: Here’s the second one. There’s this helicopter pilot named Adam Gibson, and he lives in a place where animal cloning is practiced widely. Now human cloning is still illegal, but there’s a thriving black market in human clones anyway. This guy, Gibson, gets embroiled in the shady underworld of human cloning and discovers that he himself has been cloned, and that this second Gibson has assumed his identity. Oh god. I’m blowing your mind, aren’t I?
PETER: Yeah. You sure are.
BRIAN: Where’s the popcorn?
ED: OK. OK. You’ve got the two things. It’s too hot to go outside, so they send a robot. A guy finds that he’s been cloned. And here’s the third one. A teenager named Marty walks into the middle of town and is surprised to find enormous advertisements being projected onto the sides of buildings.
GOLDIE WILSON: Hi, friends. Goldie Wilson III for Wilson Hover Conversion Systems.
ED: Jaws 19 on the movie marquis and cars whizzing by through the air. Marty is absolutely floored by all of this, because up to a point, he’s lived in a very different world. So there are the three episodes, guys. What do they have in common?
BRIAN: Technological visions of the future.
ED: That’s a very broad common denominator. That is only partial credit. Peter, you’re clever.
PETER: Oh, I think it’s the alienation of the human from the world he had imagined in his hubris that he controlled.
ED: Oh gosh. You guys are heavy. I tell you, remind me never to hang out in a dorm room with you at 2 o’clock in the morning.
PETER: Well, I’m proud of that word, hubris.
BRIAN: I will venture a second guess. They all sound like cheesy movie plots to me.
ED: Well, two of them are cheesy movie plots, and the other was a cheesy short story plot.
PETER: Soon to be a movie.
ED: The last one I mentioned is Back to the Future II in 1989. The second one is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the year 2000. And the first one is an Isaac Asimov short story from the 1940s. So that gives you a sense—1940s, 1980s, 2000.
BRIAN: We’re moving—
ED: OK, you give up? All of the scenarios that I described are set in the unimaginable year of the future of 2015. Yes, right now.
PETER: Oh no.
BRIAN: It’s not the future. That’s why we can’t imagine it, Ed. It’s now.
PETER: Well, just when you go outside watch out for the flying DeLoreans, the clones, and the robots. We’ll be in good shape.
ED: So that brings us to today’s topic for the hour, how Americans in the past have imagined the future.
BRIAN: Each week, of course, we take a topic from the current world and explore its history. And since the beginning of January is a time when so many of us lay down resolutions for the coming year. Peter?
PETER: Eh, I’m a little irresolute on that.
BRIAN: We thought it would be a good occasion for bringing you a short history of the future in America. We’ve got stories about life on Mars, 19th century style, and of visions of urban neighborhoods connected by Zeppelins. We’ll also consider the long history of imagining the apocalypse as set in New York City, and we’ll consider the enduring legacy of one of my favorite futuristic visions, The Jetsons.
PETER: We’re going to start in the final years of the 19th century with a vision of future that is without doubt one of the most influential in all of American history. It looked forward just over 100 years to a very futuristic sounding year, 2000. This vision of the future was nothing like the apocalyptic scenarios that were in vogue in 1999 when many Americans worried that Y2K would bring computer networks to their knees and usher in all sorts of mayhem. No, this was a very different Y2K. One that was full of hope. And it originated in the bestselling 1888 novel by Edward Bellamy—a novel called Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887.
ED: The novel is narrated by Julian West, a wealthy young man living in Boston. It begins in 1887, the height of the Gilded Age, when the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown so wide that a lot of people worry that it could become explosive. And these class tensions trouble this character, Julian West, a lot.
MATTHEW BEAUMONT: He can’t sleep. He’s an insomniac.
PETER: This is Matthew Beaumont a scholar in London who has written about Bellamy’s novel. He explains that Julian goes to great lengths to get some sleep. Lengths that include going to bed in a hermetically sealed underground chamber and hiring a hypnotist. The day the story picks up that hypnosis has had its desired effect.
MATTHEW BEAUMONT: So he goes to sleep, but instead of waking up simply after a refreshing night’s sleep the following day, he wakes up more than 100 years later in the year 2000, and gradually, to his horror and ultimately delight, he discovers that Boston’s been completely transformed and that it is this utopian society, not a decrepit capitalist one.
ED: Julian awakes to this perfect world after his sleeping vault is excavated by the Leete family, who are stunned, but pleasantly surprised to find this Rip Van Winkle in their backyard. Throughout the rest of the novel, the Leetes act as Julian’s tour guides to the new Boston. In the many extremely detailed passages, the head of the family, Doctor Leete, explains how their utopia works and how it came to the.
MALE SPEAKER: “The epic of trust had ended in the great trust. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends. And that to entrust to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering—”
MATTHEW BEAUMONT: I’m afraid it is a little bit boring.
ED: It is pretty didactic, but basically the story boils down to this. In the 1880s, capital had been concentrated in the hands of just a few powerful men. They reaped capitalism’s rewards while the rest of society suffered. But by the early 20th century, Americans began to realize that big conglomeration of capital were efficient and could be beneficial as long as that capital was under the control of the state.
PETER: Now you may be thinking that that sounds a lot like socialism. And if so, you are dead right. Bellamy’s vision was that the state would eventually run everything, from shopping to housing to how people worked.
MATTHEW BEAUMONT: He was clearly very impressed by the levels of organization in the military in the late 19th century. And he designs what he calls the industrial army, so that work in the future socialist society is very much administered in terms of everyone being given a separate role, there being strict tasks. It’s all extremely carefully disciplined.
PETER: And carefully limited. Men only work from the age of 21 to 45, and during that time, benefit from machines that drastically shorten their own working hours. Money isn’t an issue. In fact, currency doesn’t even exist. Instead, the government doles out credit on something akin to a credit card, so that people can buy whatever they please.
MATTHEW BEAUMONT: In Bellamy’s world in the year 2000, everyone is deeply satisfied and content.
ED: Now it’s important to note that this entire transition from capitalist society to socialist state happened gradually. There was no bloodshed, no violent revolution. And Beaumont says that’s for a good reason. After all, the kind of socialism that Gilded Age Americans were used to reading about was often about anarchists and foreign radicals.
MATTHEW BEAUMONT: And what Bellamy was very consciously I think trying to do was to separate socialism out from that, was to detoxify it, to remove that taint of bombs, of violence, that had got all too tangled up with the term “socialism” at the time.
ED: In fact, Bellamy avoided using the word “socialist” to describe his utopia. Instead, he called it “nationalist.”
MATTHEW BEAUMONT: What he meant by that was that the nation becomes the single owner of all the resources in society. That the nation is, if you like, the one capitalist in town.
PETER: Bellamy’s rebranding effort worked like a charm. Legions of 19th century readers saw Looking Backward as a blueprint for their own political future. Over 150 nationalist clubs sprung up around the country. These Bellamyites included urban professionals and labor activists, and they all wanted to make the gradual peaceful revolution described in Looking Backward a reality. And for decades after Looking Backward‘s publication, many well known American socialist reformers would point to the book as the impetus for their own political conversion.
BRIAN: In fact, the book had a very broad appeal. It sold more copies than any other novel of the 19th century other than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So you may ask yourself: so why isn’t the book better known today? And Beaumont says that a lot of the explanation has to do with sheer bad luck. Bellamy died in middle age in 1898.
So he did not live to see how nationalism—the term he had chosen to sanitize his socialist message would soon take on a more sinister tone in Europe. And that industrial army that every laborer had to serve, Beaumont says that it too took on negative connotations as history progressed into the 20th century.
MATTHEW BEAUMONT: It was authoritarian. And for that reason, he was sort of hemmed in a way—Bellamy—50 or so years after the publication of Looking Backward by Nazism on the right and Stalinism on the left. And certainly once socialism had become a dirty word throughout The Cold War in the west, and perhaps particularly in the United States, it was regarded I suspect with some slight embarrassment.
BRIAN: Ed, Peter, I’ve actually been paying attention while you’ve been gabbing away here.
PETER: No fair.
BRIAN: And you know, I understand the embarrassment. I think that’s an accurate portrayal of what happened, but I would suggest focusing on the critique embedded in Bellamy’s work here. That critique was aimed dagger like a concentrated capital. Today, we call it the growing inequality. But whatever you want to label it, it seems like a very apt criticism about the heart of a problem that society is facing, whether it’s back then or now.
PETER: Yeah, Brian. And they do call the time we’re living through now the New Gilded Age. And maybe there’s a good reason for us to look backward to Bellamy.
ED: But Peter, though, looking backward, it’s a little saddening to realize how much more hopeful they were 100 years ago in the first Gilded Age. Today, the word utopian is basically a word of dismissal rather than a reason to have a vision for something that might come to pass.
PETER: We got to hope for better gadgets. But beyond that, what kind of future can we imagine?
[MUSIC – LAZY SUSAN, “LOOKING BACKWARDS”]
(SINGING) Looking backwards through my rearview mirror. Oh, everything’s getting clearer—
ED: Helping us tell that story was Matthew Beaumont. He edited a recent edition of Looking Backward and is the author of The Spectre of Utopia: Utopian and Science Fictions at the Fin De Siecle.
BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break now. But don’t go away, because our immediate future contains Martians and their lessons for 19th century earth folks.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in the very near future.
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re looking backward at how generations of Americans have looked forward and have imagined America’s future.
ED: When we look to the future these days, we do a lot of looking at space. And you might think that’s a 20th century habit. But well over 100 years ago, Americans who were thinking about what was to come on earth, we’re fixated, of all places, on Mars.
BRIAN: The person best known for his Mars research in the late 19th century was the astronomer, Percival Lowell. Lowell built an observatory in Arizona with a telescope especially designed to observe the red planet. A recent book called Geographies of Mars describes what Lowell thought he was seeing when he looked through that telescope. Maria Lane is the author of that book, and she joins me now. Welcome to the show.
MARIA LANE: Thanks for having me, Brian.
BRIAN: So what did Percival Lowell see when he looked at Mars, and what did he make of what he saw?
MARIA LANE: So when Lowell looked at Mars, and he was not the first one to see this, but he saw canals. And Lowell’s theory was that they were made by these advanced beings who are more advanced than any beings on earth. And he said what he saw on Mars was the future of the earth. And there was a belief or a theory that he subscribed to that held that planets are constantly drying out. They’re constantly losing their hydrogen to space, basically.
In Lowell’s theory, Mars was a smaller planet. It was older. It was more dried out. It had basically lost all of its water except the polar caps. And so whenever it’s springtime, the polar cap water starts to melt, and the canals are there to convey it as efficiently as possible down to the equatorial regions, which is obviously where people live, because it’s warmer than at the Poles. And this is all done on this globally engineered system, which is essentially unthinkable on earth.
BRIAN: Yeah, and just to be clear, it seems like Lowell looked to this supposed society on Mars as really a model for keeping the earth alive. Is that a fair summary?
MARIA LANE: That’s exactly right. And he thought a lot about this idea that civilizations also evolve. And the way he wanted to make his mark in terms of telling that story was of showing this more advanced civilization that we could and should aspire to. Despite the fact that it has—as he admitted in his very first book—it was a pretty grim ending.
Earth is going to dry out just like Mars. And then it’s going to dry out even more, just like the moon, and it’s going to be a dead rock rolling through space. So that doesn’t sound great. But he was so optimistic that what it would allow us to do is take the best and brightest engineers that we have—and if we could all just work together—we could prolong our life on this earth by working together.
BRIAN: Now Lowell wasn’t just an astronomer, he actually had been a foreign dignitary in Asia. Did that experience influence his thesis about what these lines on Mars really meant?
MARIA LANE: That’s right. Yeah. He was very vigorous in putting forth a kind of political or sociopolitical explanation along with his astronomical findings. We had on Earth at that time this very interesting context related to the colonial exploration of North Africa, South Asia, a number of arid environments where British, German, American engineers were going into these places and building irrigation networks in order to bring life to the deserts and, you know, help produce food.
And so Lowell thought that’s what was happening on Mars. We are seeing the effects of an even more organized, even more advanced civilization on Mars that has done this global engineering of a canal network in order to save the planet from what was happening to it naturally, which is that it was losing its water supply and drying out.
BRIAN: Why do you think that he put Mars on top in this hierarchy of civilizations? I mean, after all, there’s the example of H.G. Wells’ 1898 War of the Worlds. And, you know, there, the Martians are kind of the bad guys, not these great civilizers.
MARIA LANE: That’s true, but they are still more advanced than humans. And the way the Americans made sense of a cultural hierarchy is that if there was someone more advanced than us, then we would soon be that. The British, on the other hand, clearly dominant in world affairs—more than half the globe was under the control of the British empire—but things weren’t going so well by this point. And I think that’s what Wells’ story is about.
You know, what if we get so advanced that we lose sight of all morals? And that’s what those invaders were in War of the Worlds. They were completely amoral. They were solely on a quest for food. They had no concern for human life. And so that that’s the British fear of the future advancement—you know, the end game of colonialism I think. Whereas the American vision was a little bit different in terms of seeing an advanced being as something we would aspire to.
BRIAN: How did Mars continue to figure in Americans’ imagination of the future after Lowell?
MARIA LANE: Well, we certainly know there are not any canals. There may be life on Mars, probably not the kind of life that Lowell envisioned—and certainly a very different idea of what Mars tells us about Earth’s future. I do think it’s really interesting that now when we look at Mars, and we think about Earth’s future, we’re thinking about, could we live there? Could we take advantage of that being an escape hatch kind of environment if we screw up our own planet too badly?
You know, Ray Bradbury’s vision from the Martian Chronicles of, could we become the Martians? Could we become the inhabitants? That is now I would say a dominant way that Mars figures in our thinking about Earth’s future. Of course, you know, since I have done this historical work, I’m kind of more stuck on the old 1890s, early 1900s idea of, you know, could Mars be by analogy giving us some clues about our own future and what we could be like.
Could we be globally organized? What would it take to create something as stupendous as the canal network on Mars? And I think now obviously it’s very different. We’re stuck with ourselves. We don’t have any guide for what we might come up with, because there are no advanced Martians, so we’re going to actually have to figure it out ourselves.
BRIAN: Well, Maria, thank you for helping us make sense of visions of the future today on BackStory.
MARIA LANE: My pleasure.
BRIAN: Maria Lane is a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of New Mexico. She’s the author of Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet.
ED: And now to a story about a different future in the sky, one located a little closer to Earth. It’s a future that’s by now long gone, but you can still see a remnant of it at the top of a 19-story building in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. From the ground, that structure looks like a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower. And looking at it today, you’d have little way of knowing what its intended purpose was when it was erected. It was a mooring mast for Zeppelins.
PETER: When the Thomas Jefferson Hotel was built in the late 1920s, many people imagined that enormous airships would soon be carrying passengers from New York City directly into downtown Birmingham. But less than a decade later, the dream of interstate Zeppelin travel had been extinguished by the explosion of the Hindenburg airship in New Jersey. No Zeppelins ever docked in Birmingham. And the mooring station there is the last one standing anywhere in the world.
Bradley Boyd is a Birminghamian, with a side hobby of exploring the city’s abandoned buildings. Reporter Ashley Cleek accompanied Bradley to the top of the former Thomas Jefferson Hotel and sent back this audio postcard about the ascent.
BRADLEY BOYD: When I first started, the first place I wanted to go was this abandoned building, the Leer Tower. So I’m alone. It’s my first time doing anything. And here I am jumping in this abandoned 20-story hotel. And it was the most thrilling feeling I’ve ever had in my life. The first thing I see when I go in is this giant mirror on the wall. There’s garbage everywhere. There’s a piano. Everything’s falling apart.
And one of the first things that you sense when you get into any abandonment is this unmistakable smell, this odor. It’s not repulsive. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It’s just this smell. It’s good to me. I love it.
ASHLEY CLEEK: Yo.
BRADLEY BOYD: Howdy.
BRADLEY BOYD: So I make my way to the top, floor by floor. It tops out in this mechanical room where all these machines are, and then there’s a door that opens up. And bam. Here at the top, you can see—everything in the city, you can see from there. It’s always sunny up there.
ASHLEY CLEEK: There it is.
BRADLEY BOYD: There you go. There’s your baby.
BRADLEY BOYD: I just know that it’s a docking station for these floating things that used to be, but to know that it was there so that Zeppelin’s could come dock there is insane. It’s made of iron. It’s black. It’s got giant, like, chunky round rivets in it. It’s really only about 30 feet tall. The tip has been knocked off. You could probably—if you were so inclined—you could probably climb to the top of it, but when you stand under it looking up, it still feels like really big and really strong. It probably is just as sturdy now as the day it was built.
ED: That’s Bradley Boyd with reporter Ashley Cleek. If you have a story you’d like to share on our show about a little known piece of history that happened near you, we’d love to hear it. You can email us at BackStory@virginia.edu.
[MUSIC – JOHNNY CASH, “COME TAKE A TRIP IN MY AIRSHIP”]
JOHNNY CASH [SINGING]: Come take a trip on my airship. Come take a trip ’round the stars. Come take a sail around Venus. Come take a sail around Mars. No one to watch—
ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of Americans’ thinking about the future. Now recently, it seems like there’s been an onslaught of one particular vision of that future. One in which New York City is destroyed. In 2009, the movie, Knowing, depicted New York’s annihilation by solar flare. Before that, there was 2007’s I Am Legend, where Will Smith plays a man foraging through a desolate New York landscape.
DR. ROBERT NEVILLE: I’m a survivor living in New York City. I haven’t seen another person in three years.
ED: A year later, viewers pieced together the city’s demise, after the fact, in Cloverfield.
ROBERT HAWKINS: My name is Robert Hawkins. Approximately seven hours ago, something attacked the city. You found this—
ED: The list goes on and on. Sometimes, New York’s destruction is part of the whole world collapsing. But still, it’s New York that’s the focus on the silver screen. It’s safe to say that New York City has been destroyed more on film than any other American city.
PETER: This is not, however, a strictly recent phenomenon. We just came across a book called The City’s End that explores the very long history of destroying the Big Apple. So we invited its author, Max Page, to tell us what we should make of these visions of New York’s apocalyptic future.
MAX PAGE: There is a fascination with destroying New York City. There are so many thousands of varieties of destruction of New York fantasies in every single media that you can imagine. There are floods, and earthquakes, and scientific inventions, and bombs, and riots. It is that every generation has found a value in destroying New York.
The real launching of this genre begins with a huge influx of immigrants in the late 19th century. And that led to great fears about what that would do to the city.
I would say one of the most powerful early ones is called Caesar’s Column, and it was published in 1890. And it imagines an Italian, anarchist-led revolutionary movement to take over New York City from the wealthy Jewish oligarchs that had dominated the City. And the column in Caesar’s Column is a column of the dead millionaires of Fifth Avenue who were killed and piled up in the middle of Madison Square.
MALE SPEAKER: Chaos had come. The wagons rolled up half a dozen at a time and dumped their dreadful burden on the stones, with no more respect or ceremony than if they had been cordwood. The whole scene was awful.
MAX PAGE: This is one subgenre of people saying that New York simply can’t survive. That is, the mix of people, the inequalities, the mess, the disease, the degradation, is too much and that the only way to build a better future is simply for New York to be destroyed and move on.
MAX PAGE: After World War II, magazines, and books, and films are dominated for a while by the fear of nuclear disaster coming to New York City.
MALE SPEAKER: Standby. Reports indicate a fallout of radioactive particles carried by wind and rain as far as 70 miles from the city—
MAX PAGE: And one of the kind of poignant issues to me was that people just had no way of knowing exactly what it would do. We had now the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but what would it mean with the new more powerful bombs? And so there is this real tension between the real and the fantastical.
MALE SPEAKER: The play you about to see deals with an imaginary H-bomb attack on New York City and with the measure that civil defense would take in such an event for the rescue and perfection of the population in and around the city. It is the prayer of every one of us that such happenings shall forever remain fictitious.
MAX PAGE: But those fantasies never came true, thankfully. But what started to take over was not about fear of attack from outside, from a foreign invader, but rather, the urban crisis that we were creating ourselves. And starting in the late 1960s, and into the ’70s. And even into the 1980s, the city was physically falling apart, and crime was rising, and there was a sense that New York was destroying itself. And that theme became really reflected in a lot of popular writing and films.
One of the most—I think—most famous is Escape from New York.
ANNOUNCER: New York, 1997, the entire city is walled maximum security prison. The bridges are mined.
MAX PAGE: And this is a film from the beginning of the 1980s. It’s kind of taking what people thought of New York—as kind of like this dangerous site and kind of turned into a fantasy that finally we gave in to the disaster and said, OK, we’re just going to throw all the bad people, and just let them live there and fight it out, and put up a walls around the whole island.
One of the great ironies for me is that New York, though it was in a very bad situation—almost going bankrupt in the mid 1970s—despite that, it was not in as bad shape as other cities. And so that when they wanted to show an American city in total disarray, what did they do? They went to St. Louis. And they filmed a lot of this in St. Louis, which seemed to be in even worse shape than New York.
In the wake of 9/11, everyone from the Right to the Left predicted that we would have a change in our culture, less violence in general, and certainly, we would stay away from New York. That projected epic change in our culture lasted about three minutes.
ANNOUNCER: We’ve got traffic snarl-ups because the electricity is now out in almost every part of Manhattan.
MAX PAGE: You know, in 2004, a major film, The Day After Tomorrow, imagined both flooding and then a glacier in Manhattan. So with great gusto, they entered the climate change debate that was going on as part of that election year. So then they felt like the game was right back on.
I think it remains the city we both love the most and hate the most. It’s the—kind of—the symbol of the United States. So if you want to make a critique on where the country is, you show it through New York, whether it’s because there’s too much wealth inequality, because there’s too much moral decline. But underlying so many of the fantasies of New York’s destruction is a fear of losing the city. So I have always seen, or I came to see, really by the end of working on this book that so many of these fantasies were really just kind of odd love letters to the city. That we imagined the city being torn down, we imagined some of the great monuments, the fabric of the city being destroyed, because it’s one of our greatest fears in real life.
PETER: Max Page is a professor of Architecture and History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His book is called The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fear, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction.
ED: It’s time for another break. In your future, we’re predicting a story about a guy named George, his wife Jane, a daughter named Judy, and a boy named Elroy. Can you guess the maid’s name? BackStory will get back to the future in just a minute.
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re marking the season the New Year’s resolutions with an hour on the history of American thinking about the future. We’re going to rejoin our story in the early 1960s in the midst of an efflorescence of futuristic thinking, ushered in by postwar affluence and the brand new American space program. Smack dab in the middle of all of that, The Jetsons debuted on ABC TV. The basic premise of this prime time cartoon show was the trials and tribulations of an all-American middle class family 100 years into the future in 2062.
But some time in the half century since The Jetsons debuted, Americans started using this parody of middle class life as a measuring stick for our own very real present and futures. We decided to reach out to one of The Jetsons’ biggest fans to understand why.
MATT NOVAK: My name is Matt Novak. I am editor of the “Paleofuture” blog on Gizmodo. And I am absolutely fascinated with The Jetsons.
[THEME MUSIC]: Meet George Jetson.
MATT NOVAK: It’s a cartoon that debuted in 1962—so over a half century ago—and yet we’re still using it as a reference for futurism today. You can literally do a Google News Search every single day and see people using The Jetsons in various forms.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Tired of waiting for a flying car? How to finally go all Jetsons with a—
FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s all part of the trend that seems like something out of the Jetsons.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Jetsons, right? Remember that cartoon?
FEMALE SPEAKER: It kind of reminds me of The Jetsons.
MALE SPEAKER: It’s like The Jetsons.
MALE SPEAKER: It’s like The Jetsons.
MALE SPEAKER: …sort of bring the smart home, that Jetsons future, down to an affordable level.
MALE SPEAKER: It’s The Jetsons.
MATT NOVAK: When people think of The Jetsons, they think of robots.
ROSIE ROBOT: I should have all the answers for you in about 10 minutes.
JANE: This our new maid, Rosie. Am I ever—
MATT NOVAK: They think of flying cars.
GEORGE: Boy, this spaceway traffic gets worse every night.
MATT NOVAK: They think of push buttons.
JANE: Hard day at the button, dear?
GEORGE: Oh, brutal, brutal. I had to push the button on and off five times. That spaceway is a slave driver—
MATT NOVAK: A lot of us work in consoles where we’re pushing buttons all day. In that respect, The Jetsons really is a Rorschach test. It is a way to understand the world as either a great predictor of the world that we live in today, or conversely, a great betrayal.
So one of the fascinating aspects of the original 1962, ’63 version of The Jetsons is just how conservative it is. We live in a world of flying cars and jet packs, and yet, there is no social change. There are no people of color in The Jetsons. Jane, the mother, doesn’t work outside of the home. Everything that you would imagine to change in this vision of the future is all technological. It’s arguably all on the surface.
There was sort of this aspirational attitude about the entire series, that maintenance of the social status quo, and maintenance of the nuclear family, and husband, wife in their place, and each fulfilling very specific roles according to early 1960s TV culture.
GEORGE: I don’t get it. When we first got married, you could punch out a breakfast like mother used to make. Now you’re all thumbs.
MATT NOVAK: When people romanticize The Jetsons, they’re romanticizing the past as much as they are the future. The middle class that The Jetsons represents is one that we were sold on in the 1950s. And you have to remember that The Jetsons is a parody show of ’50s futurism. We were sold this idea of the three-hour workday. George Jetson works a three-hour workday, three days a week. There’s a bit in the original Jetsons where George complains about—
GEORGE: Those three-hour workdays are killing me.
MATT NOVAK: Yeah, these three-hour workdays are killing me. That’s very clearly a joke, but this wasn’t some radical idea of that in the future automation would give us shorter workweeks, and that we’d still maintain this amazing standard of living. These were government studies. To have a short workweek was taken as a given.
In the 1950s, some sociologists were truly concerned that this would mean people would have no sense of purpose in their lives. There’s even an episode where Jane Jetson gets incredibly depressed.
JANE: I feel so, so tired lately. Sometimes I think I’ll go out of my mind.
MATT NOVAK: You see this play out again and again in The Jetsons where the family of the future would have all of this recreation time. And when you look back at the 1960s and how often the middle class actually did take more vacation time than today. That was just the natural progression of things. Of course we’d take more vacation time. Now one of the things The Jetsons didn’t tell us about was that, at every level of the American workforce today, people are on call because of these supposedly liberating devices like the smartphone.
There’s almost this mantra of, where is my jetpack? Where is my flying car? And you can draw a direct link to this TV show, The Jetsons, that people were watching as kids on constant repeat.
MALE SPEAKER: Where are out jetpacks? We were promised jetpacks. When do I get my jetpack?
MALE SPEAKER: Where’s my flying car?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Let’s do it.
MATT NOVAK: I think it’s warped, sort of, our understanding of futurism in general, because it was so fixated on technological promises and totally devoid of any social change or anything that would certainly unfold in the next three decades.
BRIAN: Matt Novak is editor of the “Paleofuture” blog at Gizmodo. We’ll post a link on our own site to his reviews of every single Jetsons episode of the 1960s.
Peter, Ed, terrific piece on The Jetsons, one of my personal favorites. Although I got to put in a plug for history. I like The Flintstones too. I’m struck by the conservative use of technology. It kind of masks the fact that on the eve of a social revolution, the civil rights movement and radical changes in gendered relations, everything remains the same socially. My question for you is: Does technology mask social change all the way back in the 18th century and the 19th century? Is this a consistent theme?
PETER: Well, Brian, people’s social aspirations are always conservative. And the people who settled America—the Europeans that settled America—did so because they want things they couldn’t get in the old world. But their horizons were shaped in the old world. And what did you find in America? You found an extraordinary abundance of land. And for a land starved people—and I mean very few English people owned land and could make decisions about how to use it.
So I think the aspiration is: from landlessness to landedness to becoming landlords or masters of all you survey. And that vision is available and motivates people—settlers on the frontier—where the land is virtually worthless. You can’t do much with it, but you can own it. Every man as you and I would put it in the 20th century—every man can be a king in America.
ED: So Peter, that’s a profoundly conservative vision these people have—
PETER: I think it is.
ED: —right? You know, you go—
PETER: Almost monarchist.
ED: It’s ironic people go in the other side of the world in order to replicate more of what they have, except kind of better. You know, so it’s a very Jetson kind of image in many ways, right?
PETER: Well, think of all the towns called “New” in English America.
ED: Yeah, exactly.
PETER: “New” London.
ED: Yeah. Right. Right. And so then, of course in the 19th century, you might expect this to break, Brian, because that’s the time you asked about technology originally. 19th century, of course, sees the great disruptive technologies of world history—of the railroad, the telegraph, the steam engine on boats. All those things shatter the idea of space and time on which that original vision that Peter had talked about had been built. And so Brian, you might think that that would be the time people would have new visions of the future.
BRIAN: And of social relations in the future.
ED: Yeah, exactly. And unfortunately, what you have is that on one hand, you have slavery spreading like a cancer using these new technologies. It actually accelerates the spread of the most archaic social order of all time.
BRIAN: And how did they actually used that tech—how does that help them expand it?
ED: Well, steamboats are their first great innovation. It’s that, how would you carry all this cotton against the current? So the South is blessed with all these rivers, but they only run one way. If you can adapt these technologies of the steamboat, and the cotton gin, and of the cotton press, you’re producing the most valuable commodity in the world with this new technologies. And this is before the North has actually found ways to harness these same technologies.
PETER: And I think, Ed, what we’re talking about is highly-capitalized industrial agriculture on a large scale is predicated on labor exploitation.
ED: And Brian, to go back to your question of, what do they use it for—the slave holders? Sadly, they use it to actually move the labor force itself. That when enslaved people are being bought and sold in the 1840s and 1850s, the new Middle Passage is on a railroad and on the steamboat. At the same time in the North, they also don’t really imagine a new social order. They just imagine more farms in which the men are the little kings, and they’re just going to keep expanding, right?
And so here’s the irony—is that when you have a telegraph that can conquer space and time with information and a railroad that can conquer land with speed and limitless carrying capacities, this actually triggers the great crisis of the American nation. That they see, here are two visions of the future, which are actually the same visions that they had 200 years ago, which is the spread of all these farms and commerce—one based on slavery, one based on free labor—racing for California, racing for the markets of the West, racing to connect with the rest of the world.
And because people can imagine that they’re going to run out of this land if they’re going to just keep replicating these systems, the crisis of the Union. The Republican Party emerges and said, we’ve got to stop that cancerous spread in the South. And the people in the South say, we’ve got to stop that cancerous Republican Party that’s trying to constrain the future, and let’s have a war before there’s actually anything immediately at stake.
PETER: Not immediately at stake, Ed. But that’s our whole business about visions of the future.
PETER: And you’re going to reach a terminal point, aren’t you? You’re going to run out of land. And there is—
ED: Pretty darn soon.
PETER: —even in this struggle for control of the West, an awareness that now is the time to strike, because it may be too late. And that idea of a finite supply of land, and therefore, a fundamental challenge to the American way of life, that’s looming in the background.
ED: So Brian, Peter, what we see is that the future and the past are always braided together.
PETER: Yes, exactly.
ED: There’s never really a profoundly radical vision of the future that just eviscerates what we’ve had in the past. Even with The Jetsons—if you listen to the voice of Rosie, their antiquated and yet lovable robot, who cleans the house, she clearly has a working class voice, an immigrant voice from mid-19th century America.
So even when we’re trying to envision labor saving devices, we either envision it as a butler, like in Star Wars, that fits Peter’s vision so perfectly, or in an American case, like an immigrant we bring here to actually do the work that people with the buttons don’t want to do.
[SINGING]: The world tomorrow will be empty and cold…
PETER: Well, guys, the unimaginable future has arrived. The show’s over, and we’re out of here. But listeners, we’ll be waiting for you online. Drop in at backstoryradio.org, and let us know what we simply cannot leave out of the BackStory time capsule we’re compiling here. What objects are most revealing of the historical moment we’re living through now?
ED: We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger. And happy New Year!
PETER: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, and Robert Armengol. Our digital producer is Emily Gadek, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from [? Coli ?] [? Elhigh ?]. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by The Tomato Fund—cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment—and by History Channel—history made every day.
ANNOUNCER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
[SINGING] …holds nothing for me.
BRIAN: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.