Monday, August 15, 2005

The American Clock and the World of Tomorrow

If there was one idea that got America through the Great Depression of the 1930s, playwright Arthur Miller suggests, it was the future. "Then and now, you have to wonder what really held it all together, and maybe it was simply the Future: the people were still not ready to give it up," a character said in Miller's play, "The American Clock," set during the Depression. "Like a God, it was always worshipped among us, and they could not yet turn their backs on it. Maybe it's that simple. Because from any objective viewpoint, I don't understand why it held."

It was in some ways the immigrant's dream of America and the future rolled into one that dominated the first third of the century (when immigration to America was at its highest), despite the terrible hardships of the 1930s. And as the 30s ended, there was the glittering promise of technology.

It was all on display in the great 1939 New York World's Fair," with its twin themes of "The World of Tomorrow" and "Dawn of a New Day." (This year's film, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is set in 1939, and borrows the look and spirit of the Fair's technology as well as its name.)

The Fair was full of wonders, from the gleaming white Trylon, the shimmering Glass Center and the bold Perisphere that exhibited the shining "Democricity" of the future. Fairgoers saw household robots and a couple of puppets from Chicago named Kukla and Ollie demonstrating a new technology called television.

Visitors reclined in chairs on a conveyor belt to glide through General Motor's "Futurama," which arrayed before them the future of 1960: happy healthy people living in throw-away houses, working in soaring white skyscrapers or clean modern factories, going home to green villages on fourteen lane freeways scientifically built for safety, with automatic radio-controlled traffic. Because of technology and efficiency, a soothing voice said, there would be little disease, and most of America would be forest again.

But almost as soon as the World of Tomorrow opened, the world of 1939 crashed into a decade of horror: nations falling to mechanized blitzkriegs, concentration camps and genocide, in a world war that brought destruction for the first time from the air: the first bombing campaigns against civilians and cities in the London Blitz, the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, then the saturation bombings of German and Japanese cities, culminating in the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, each with one atomic bomb.

The technology of destruction advanced so quickly during the war that its feverish momentum continued afterwards, seemingly and alarmingly out of control. Hopes for the future continued, but they depended on whether humanity could survive its most devastating inventions.

So just after World War II and as the atomic arms race began with bewildering speed, H.G. Wells' study of the future was revived, but with a different emphasis than in the 1890s, or even in the dreams of the 1930s. Future study was revived to predict nightmares.

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