Funnel Vision

Posted on April 14, 2012


Predicting the future is a tricky business, and the results are usually less than impressive. Take, for example, all of those world’s fair exhibits that have attempted to portray life even just a couple of decades ahead. What we always get are flying cars, highways devoid of traffic jams, entire meals in a pill, and wisecracking robots that cook our breakfast and iron our shirts. Technology keeps promising to bring us increased leisure, good health, sparkling air, and maybe immortality.

At least that’s the message.

Have technical advances made a big difference? We really still have the same lives we’ve always had, except now we can send messages filled with misspellings and grammatical errors to almost anyone in the world, while ignoring family members who are seated right next to us and who are growing increasingly irritated because they’ve asked us three times if we’d like more potato salad.

But while I hesitate to engage in prophecy, there are certain things I have to believe are true, or will be true. Fifty years from now, will people still be rebuilding their homes after a devastating tornado has blown through their small Midwestern town? Will our only response to these killer storms continue to be restricted to driving in a zig-zag pattern or cowering in the basement? No, we’re smarter than that. What is a tornado, after all? It’s a bunch of wind blowing around really fast in a circle. Someday we’ll discover that if we can get some air blowing equally fast in the opposite direction, the two forces will cancel each other out, and we’ll be left with a nice breeze. In order to accomplish this, I imagine huge circular fans mounted on rolling platforms that can be moved to wherever there’s an approaching tornado. Hundreds of lives will be saved, as well as billions of dollars in property damage. Meanwhile, a Save-the-Twister campaign is sure to form, as well as protest groups complaining about the hum of the rotating blades and the cancer-causing effects of the electromagnetic fields they generate.

The climate in general will always be a problem, because we’ve somehow gotten it into our heads that we have a major influence over the weather. This is another result of our ability to talk to everyone, and the fact that we can fly anywhere in the world within a day. It’s easy to forget how big the planet is, and how small we are. And we’ll continue to forget, eventually boxing ourselves into a place where everything we do points to imminent disaster. Once we’re completely paralyzed, immobilized by the fear that even our shadows are destroying the environment, the pendulum will begin its inevitable swing the other way, and we’ll again assume it was something we did. We’ll feel nervous when the climate seems stuck and unchanging for a while, and terrified when it appears to be cooling down a bit.

I do believe the world’s fair exhibits were right about one thing, and it’s that sooner or later we’ll figure out how to acquire more leisure time. Several countries in Western Europe already have this knowledge, of course, but they squander it on expensive lunches and a lot of rich foods loaded with cholesterol and things that clog their pores. The rest of us are either tired of commuting to work or sick of standing in line at the unemployment office. We want to free up bigger chunks of our day for napping, exercise, yoga, or just gazing wistfully at the landscape. But mostly for napping.

It’s important that we consider how to put at least a few of those extra hours to good use. We could try thinking. I don’t say this to insult anybody. I do a lot of thinking myself, but it tends to be the pointless variety, like trying to understand why there are eighty-nine different kinds of vacuum cleaners when there are only about three different kinds of floors, or wondering if there’s any truly safe method for putting on my underwear and pants at the same time. I’m pretty sure that within two or three decades, we’ll be recording our thoughts and storing them directly into a digital format. This will eliminate the need for writing and reading. Our grandchildren will view our books, newspapers, and e-readers as quaint and obsolete, much the way we look at hieroglyphics, knee breeches, and television sets that have knobs.

How will future generations remember us? For the most part, they won’t. But historians will look back and acknowledge that we were most significant for our unsurpassed obsession with germs. They’ll describe our century as one in which millions of people lived with daily exposure to malaria, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases, while millions of others ran to sanitizers whenever they touched an unfamiliar surface or came within four feet of another human being. I used a public bathroom recently, and mounted over the sink was a chart by the World Health Organization that illustrated the proper way to wash your hands. It had twelve steps, which were inexplicably numbered 0 to 11, and used specialized terms like left dorsum, but for some reason felt the need to explain that you wet your hands with water. I suspect that researchers in the next century will find that curious. Just as likely, though, they’ll be too busy dodging tornadoes or taking naps. It’s also possible that nobody will be much interested in the past, and that people, even then, will still be foolishly attempting to predict the future.

In the twenty-four hours since I published this post, tornadoes have destroyed dozens of homes and businesses in at least four states. Many people have been injured and a few have been killed. It happens every year, and it’s sure to happen again. Clearly, this is no laughing matter. I really wonder if there’s a solution, and if someone will figure it out before too many more people are hurt.