Like many people who write, I have an unfinished novel that I may never finish. I don't pretend it's great literature. Its protagonist is a woman I put through quite a rough time until she comes out at peace with herself by the end -- pretty standard "woman triumphant" stuff. I have to admit that the plot is somewhat secondary to the placement in American culture. Its sweep is from around 1915 to the mid-1930's, so there are some significant things that happen during that period of time which form a backdrop. For me, the cultural research was the fun part back when I still had time to actually write, because in my meticulous effort to avoid historical anachronisms, I spent more time researching than writing. Right now in my spare bedroom, I have a stack of vintage magazines from the time which I pored over so as to try and get everything write. No detail is too small to confirm: When did commercially-packaged mayonnaise become available? Would a midwestern farmhouse have indoor plumbing by 1920? What about electricity? What did women cook in those days? On a farm, the big meal was in the middle of the day. Of what did it usually consist? What did people do in the evening? I even researched the town in which the middle of the novel is set.
When you look at how people actually lived during that time, not just what you see on shows like Downton Abbey, it really hits home just what kind of technological advances we've seen over the last century. Some of them have come back to bite us, but there was a spirit of "can-do" that characterized much of the twentieth century that seems to have disappeared, replaced by superstition and fear. It's one thing to recognize that we have exploited finite resources as much as we can and to try to leave a smaller footprint on the planet by returning to a simplier, more agrarian lifestyle (albeit one that has smartphones). It's quite another to want a complete return to the 14th century.
Think about the refrigerator. We don't think about it much except when the power goes out and we have to throw everything away. The refrigerator was around as early as 1905, as shown in the advertisement above), but wasn't until many, many years later that it became common. We can't imagine life without it.
The automobile was arguably the biggest game-changer of the 20th century. They'd been around for years, but the Model T made automobiles affordable to the masses. The ability to travel long distances begat the family vacation and expanded the horizons of many people. Think about how radio changed us. Radio technology too had been around in the nineteenth century, but radio stations as we know them today showed up around 1921. Suddenly mass communication became possible for both information and entertainment. Television. The VCR, the DVD player, and the DVR. Commercial air travel.
In the early 1960's, anything seemed possible. The Jetsons cartoons envisioned a world in which a very conventional 1950's family had a robot maid and an airborne car and other electronic gadgets:
The Futurama ride at the 1964-65 World's Fair envisioned a future of man conquering space, the sea, and other hostile environments:
In the 1970's, NASA, flush with the success of the Apollo mission and flush with cash to begin the space shuttle program, envisioned space colonization just as the middle east oil embargoes were reminding us of the cost of some of that technology:
Then in the 1980's, the advent of the personal computer revived the notion of what technology developed by smart, visionary people can do.
So it's all the more appalling that we find ourselves here today, with a man who rants about Satan "attacking America" being taken seriously as a presidential candidate (and a population 70% of which believes that Satan is real). This is a man who regards public schools as an "anachronism" no longer needed because of the death of the industrial revolution and who advocates home schooling for everyone, who thinks contraception is evil, and who is the Second Coming of Billy Sunday:
When we look now at the challenges we face in the future, yes, some of them brought on by the technological changes we saw over the last century, it doesn't exactly give me a lot of confidence that we are likely to have our educational system dismantled by people like Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney or John Boehner and the kind of willfully ignorant people who equate education with some kind of negative elitism and celebrate stupidity and religion for rational thought. To the extent that there is talk of science, it's coming from Newt Gingrich, who then turns around and spouts the Santorum line about infanticide and morality. There was a time not so long ago when we had confidence in the human mind's ability to come up with ideas to make life better. We financed public schools and colleges and we held science fairs and we lived in a world based on reality. Pipe dreams about undersea hotels and shoes that let us walk on the ceiling and beds that popped us up in the morning like toast may have been silly, and may have been in the service of corporations, but at least they demonstrated a sense of he possible. In the America of the religious right, nothing is possible. Everything is about doom and death. It's a world devoid of joy and pleasure, one in which they're just waiting to die so they can live in some ill-defined state with a guy they worship as a deity who died a long time ago and who just wanted people to be nicer to each other. They never stop to think that he might not want them.
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