Stop with the "Jetsons" Nostalgia!
"The future perfect can only be a tense, not a thing." The mid-20th-century was a weird time that produced an anti-tech backlash.
As I’ve said here before, I’m a big fan of Jim Pethokoukis, and I highly recommend his Faster, Please! newsletter. I’m also a fan of Adam Thierer and his arguments for the importance of “permissionless innovation” and “evasive entrepreneurs.” So I was happy to read Jim’s recent Q&A with Adam—except for one little thing. It starts with Jim’s favorite cultural obsession, nostalgia for 1960s science fiction: “The 1960s was full of optimistic sci-fi, most notably The Jetsons and Star Trek. Does the fact that the '60s were followed by the pessimistic 1970s show sci-fi simply doesn’t matter?”
In the Postrelian tradition of attacking my allies’ arguments—I call it taking them seriously, while my husband calls it stabbing people in the front—please allow me to make a few points about this fixation (not just by Jim) on 1960s pop s.f. and recent dystopian works.
1) The Jetsons was not science fiction any more than The Flintstones was archeology. It was, like its Stone Age partner, a midcentury family sitcom—I Love Lucy/The Honeymooners/Father Knows Best with different backdrops and dumber jokes.The commentary (such as it is) about technology mostly consists of complaints about devices breaking down and costing too much. Automation also means George and Jane Jetson do nothing all day except push a few buttons. If real, their lives would incredibly boring. (The Feminine Mystique was a bestseller for a reason.) The show is definitely not Star Trek.
The Jetsons is graphically appealing, but it only works because we don’t take it literally as a portrait of the future. The Jetsons live in a world without trees, grass, or privacy. Anyone in a flying car can peer straight into their windows, which also appear to be open all the time. People live in the sky for no reason other than it makes for cool drawings. You can’t take a walk around the neighborhood. Ever wonder, What’s on the Ground in The Jetsons? (Spoiler: “Homeless people and walking birds.”)
2) Star Trek’s fundamental appeal was not about the future or technology per se. The show portrays a setting in which smart people have new experiences and learn new things, solve important problems, and forge deep friendships. Nobody worries about money or office politics. The show’s values are humane. Everyone’s job is important and the boss deserves respect. As I learned in a big survey I did while researching The Power of Glamour, for many of its fans Star Trek represents an ideal workplace.
Star Trek’s vision of a nerd-friendly universe made the future glamorous, but only to the select few for whom that vision resonated. When originally broadcast Star Trek had lousy ratings. Most people didn’t find it especially appealing.Its pop culture success dates to syndicated reruns in the 1970s, which is when I saw it. (The first fan convention was in 1972.) By then, its New Frontier spirit, complete with Cold War analogies, was already out of step with the times. The show attracted fanatical devotion partly because popular culture offered few (no?) other celebrations of earnest nerds and their values.
3) Dystopias are far from Hollywood’s main products. I personally worry more about the ubiquity of pharmaceutical company villains and complex government conspiracies. (Did you ever see Scandal?) But I understand why tech horror obsesses D.C. policy wonks. They look for movies about A.I. or climate change or fill-in-the-dystopian-blank and find plenty of evidence of anti-technology attitudes infecting the culture.
But Hollywood’s biggest movies are not dystopias. You may have heard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s kind of big. It’s also technologically optimistic science fiction. Tony Stark! Wakanda! The Pym Particle! Yes, sometimes you get Ultron, but if you think Hollywood is only serving up technological gloom and doom you are definitely not reading Variety.
Meanwhile, on the prestige side, there are movies like Her (2013), Arrival (2016), and Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). All have heart, as well as a nuanced and non-negative view of technology. And I’d argue that the future of A.I. is likely to be improved by the existence of thought-provoking movies like Ex Machina.
4) The Graduate, released in 1967, was a contemporary of the original Star Trek. A better question to ask about popular culture and the pessimistic turn is why this scene was so powerful. What made audiences find this career advice creepy and ridiculous? Not dystopian science-fiction movies.
5) In chapter three of The Future and Its Enemies I adopt a maxim from Henry Petroski to explain the open-ended nature of progress: “Form follows failure.” To quote the book:
Far from a utopian concept, this sense of progress acknowledges that life is not perfect, that any improvement requires ingenuity and work, and that different people have different notions of what constitutes a “better” idea. “Form follows failure,” is how civil engineering professor Henry Petroski, whose popular books explore the histories of such mundane objects as zippers and forks, sums it up:
The form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failures to function properly. This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drives all inventors, innovators, and engineers. And there follows a corollary: Since nothing is perfect, and, indeed, since even our ideas of perfection are not static, everything is subject to change over time. There can be no such thing as a “perfected” artifact; the future perfect can only be a tense, not a thing.
As soon as we have something that improves over the past, we see what’s wrong with it. Unalloyed cheeriness doesn’t drive progress. Dissatisfaction does. What’s true for “made things” is also true of social and cultural artifacts and practices. One generation’s accomplishments look like unsolved problems to their successors.
The “plastics” scene in The Graduate isn’t about polymers. It’s about a young, economically privileged generation feeling trapped into pursuing inauthentic lives. To a man who lived through the Depression and World War II, the prospect of security in a growing, high-tech industry is enticing. To Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, it’s horrifying. He doesn’t know what he wants, but he know it isn’t a job at Dupont.
When I saw The Graduate more than a decade after it came out, I didn’t find it compelling. But if you’re concerned with preserving technological and social dynamism, you have to take seriously the discontent the movie represents. The Graduate didn’t create that discontent. It reflected it. As I wrote in this essay:
In a liberal order, however imperfect, the competition, criticism, innovation, and open-ended pursuit of better ways of doing things that characterize economic dynamism also give rise to cultural dynamism. Free individuals exercise voice and exit. They use what I’ve called “criticism by expression” and “criticism by example”—otherwise known as complaining and entrepreneurship—to shape new norms and institutions. And since the culture and the economy are not, in fact, separate spheres, the two forms of dynamism affect one another.
Culture is just as complex, dynamic, and unpredictable as science, technology, or markets—and just as driven by discontent.
In 2014, I wrote a Bloomberg column on these issues, which I will send out as a separate “From the Archives” post.
Odds and Ends
The Kindle edition of The Fabric of Civilization is on sale for $3.99. At that price, it’s worth buying even if you own a print copy, just in case you want to search it.
Also, here’s the periodic reminder that the references for The Fabric of Civilization are online here.
How Spider-Man Led to the Invention of the Prisoner Ankle Monitor
Will California law allow this 2,300-unit project, despite local NIMBYs? (If you read my recent column on Atherton, you might guess the answer.)
How Spock Became a Sex Symbol (Bloomberg column I wrote when Leonard Nimoy died)
Interview with me about The Power of Glamour (old but good!)
Got a positive vision of the future? Enter my contest, described at the bottom of this post.
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To avoid relying on 50-year-old memories, I rewatched the first episode on HBO Max.
“As soon as we have something that improves over the past, we see what’s wrong with it.” That line combined with your suggestion that it applies equally to things and ideas/culture was a real eye-opening ‘ah-ha!’ moment for me. And cathartic as well.
For an alternative view (two alternatives, really): Over time, Roger Ebert developed a very different take on "The Graduate" and "Plastics." In 1967, he lionized the character of Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), to whom he ascribed "acute honesty." 30 years later, Ebert revisited the film and said he had concluded that Benjamin was an "insufferable creep" and that Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) was, in fact, "the most sympathetic and intelligent character" in the film. In his re-review, Ebert wrote of the iconic scene that you mention: "Anyone with average intelligence should have known, in 1967, that the word 'plastics' contained valuable advice--especially valuable for Benjamin, who lacks creative instincts and is destined to become a corporate drudge."