op-ed

2016: The Year Things Will Change Slightly

1976_sesame_calendar_00_front_coverWe’re about to enter 2016, 40 years removed from the Bicentennial. In another ten years we’ll likely see another red, white, and blue marketing blitz similar to the one in ’76. Although the anniversary won’t be as meaningful, the marketing will probably make the Bicentennial look subdued.

Everything sported the stars and stripes in 1976. That year my Easter basket featured Archibald Willard’s famous ‘Spirit of ’76’ painting, the drum, fife, and flag image that was on everything from bread sacks to KISS posters. I had a red, white, and blue kite, a Bicentennial Cub Scouts neckerchief, an American flag banana seat on my bike — even the fire hydrant on our block was painted like a Minuteman. We’re even more of a consumer society now than we were at our 200 year mark. That’s the big innovation of the last four decades — new and improved ways to buy and sell more garbage.

What a tremendous disappointment the future has turned out to be. That’s no fault of the future, of course, but of our unrealistic expectations. The future meant floating cities, flying cars, and an end to hunger and disease, or it was going to be a cannibalistic dystopia. Either way, the future was marked by big ideas, big shifts. Rarely do our futurists predict that our collective imagination will be used to figure out how to sell more crap that nobody needs, but that’s the secret to effective prognostication. If one can’t find the profit motive in a floating city, there ain’t going to be any floating cities. The biggest technological leap during my lifetime has been the computer revolution, and we’ve squandered that on streaming services, online shopping, and cat videos.

Forty years from 1976, and I’m still wearing jeans and sneakers, still shitting in essentially the same toilet in a house made of wood, concrete, and glass.  I sleep in basically the same bed, still pay for things with dollars instead of “credits,” still have a name rather than a bar code, still drive a car with four rubber tires and an internal combustion engine. Mixer, toaster, iron, washer, dryer, water heater — everything is essentially the same.

With exception to information technology, the last four decades have seen incremental changes, not huge leaps. This is not the 2016 nine year-old me expected. Where’s the Moon colony? Where are the bionic people? I’m not talking sophisticated prosthetics here, but Steve Austin-style crimefighting super humans. Where are the moving sidewalks, other than in airports? We were promised home robots, and the best we’ve seen is the Roomba.

There’s good news here for the more pragmatic among us. Recognizing that change comes in small increments allows us to calibrate our bullshit detectors. We’re not as likely to fall for crazy visions of dystopian futures, nor do we piss away money on the same old fads just because they’re rebranded “hover boards” rather than roller skates or whatever.

Similarly, recognizing that profit drives change in our culture is really the only key we need to understand how to create the future that we want. Want social change? Stop trying to convince the oppressors (whoever they might be) to change their ways and start convincing them that it’s in their best fiscal interests. Climate change? Same thing — focus on the dollars to be made, not the moral imperative.

Back in ’76 we elected a new President, putting an end to the Nixon era. Jerry Ford was incrementally better than his predecessor — there were no major scandals during his tenure, at least — and incrementally worse than his successor, Jimmy Carter, elected during the Bicentennial year. In 2016 we’ll once again elect a new President, and if history holds true he or she will be only incrementally better or worse than Obama. The seismic shifts predicted by pundits and social media blabbermouths are nothing but fear mongering or genuine expressions of anxiety. (This paragraph bears one giant Bush-shaped asterisk. How one presidency went so horribly wrong will be fodder for historians circa 2056.)

Through my office door right now I hear my daughter playing Xbox. In ’76 my father would have heard the “bloop bloop bloop” of Pong. Whatever she’s playing is much more sophisticated than two paddles and a ball but it’s essentially the same thing, just new and improved.

I don’t know what my point here is, really. Maybe the point is that we don’t need to worry so much. No death panels are coming. There’s no Soylent Green in our future, nor is a fascist dictator going to round up half the country for some nefarious reason. In 2016 things will remain basically the same as they’ve always been, just marketed differently.

But man, a floating city would be really cool.

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  1. I wonder if it’s the challenge of so many who recognize “that change comes in small increments” ensures that change only comes in small increments. The inability of change creators/innovators/agents to sufficiently energize the more cynical (or lethargic) masses makes the slow pace of change self-fulfilling. We are creatures of habit, creatures of comfort, we hate change and it takes something amazing to shake us up. It takes effort, both on the part of the change advocate and the populace to embrace and incorporate the change. Hoverboards? Kinda cool but I have rotten balance and barely learned to bicycle much less roller skate, plus I work from home. Why bother? Moon cities? Sounds like it’s an amazing view up there but also pretty cold (plus my kids couldn’t hear me yell at them up there — all sorts of practical difficulties). This applies to comparatively smaller things, too. Why give up my reliable car CD stereo for the flash of a portable digital music device? Sure, I wouldn’t be fumbling for CDs while driving and I could keep more music on hand but I hate ancillary cords in the car and, well, converting the car CD stereo to receive Bluetooth just seems like work…and a $29.99 investment that could be better spent on a Peet’s (large soy chai latte, double dirty, extra foam, please). Heck, I’d have enough money left over for a scone plus be able to leave a tip so I don’t look like a cheap white bread tightwad.

    Actually, Tesla has probably come closest to powerfully advocating for change and putting the resources behind it to pave the wave for lazy slogs like me. I know that I *should* do it (to help usher in positive change) but isn’t there an option with less commitment for me? Why give up my 8-yr-old reliable Japanese internal combustion vehicle on which I owe not a penny for something new-fangled and better for the environment (that costs bucks)? I’m sure in another 10-15 years, I’ll get around to buying one myself. Maybe. But only if I have a full cup of Peet’s in my hand.

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