A 1939 Virtual World: GM's Futurama

gm1.jpg Despite my distaste (to put it mildly) for GM today, in the 1930s the company had an inspiring vision for an America remade by highways. Such was the heroic futurism of that time that after seeing Futurama, the GM pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, each visitor received a small button, reading "I have seen the future." I purchased one of these on eBay a few years back.

Had I a time machine, high on my list would be a long visit to this fair. As the documentary The World of Tomorrow shows, Futurama was a highlight of any visit. Coming as it did in the midst of the Great Depression and the growing threat of a new European War, the fair in general, and Futurama in particular, offered Americans a glimpse of what could be in a peaceful and prosperous world transformed by modern technology.

For GIs returning from World War II, getting a new car, a suburban tract-home, and lighting out on the well paved open roads made Futurama seemingly come true. It would be decades before US oil production peaked futuramapin.jpgfor good, and never recovered, leaving us an importer of oil. And no one had any idea of what all the millions of cars would do to humans (from their waistlines to their credit-lines) or even the earth's atmosphere. There are no traffic jams, road-rage, or potholes in Futurama. And yes, I find it endlessly amusing that Matt Groenig named his animated series Futurama; I've seen one episode, but this darker version of the Jetsons shows how modern irony is so different from the unalloyed technological optimism of 1939: science, then, had THE ANSWER. We would move forward out of a "collective yearning of an era" to make that future (Gibson 32).

With its quarter-mile tall buildings, 100 mph superhighways, and re-engineered city cores, Futurama is still impressive, though to those like me who hate the boring uniformity of Postwar suburbia and believe that suburbia as it now exists is not sutainable, Futurama can seem like a promise never realized or, perhaps, a carmaker's bait-and-switch. GM promised us a sleek Corvette; did we end up with an tiny Aveo or a hulking Suburban instead?

Today GM's vision can seem a bit sad...and the fair-goers really believed that this world would come.

The Legacy of Futurama

No one knew this then, of course. This is why Gibson's story is
Image of 50s Suburbia from "Thinking Smaller"
so important in summing up the aspirations of an era. In fact, for a while, we did pretty well, in the 1950s, adapting the ideas of Futurama to the more modest aspirations of returning GIs and their families. For the famous development at Levittown:

The original Levittown model had two bedrooms a kitchen/dining area and a living room. Built with limited frills, the developers raced to construct them at previously unheard of rates. Most units only had what we would consider basic appliances, while the garage was not even in the picture (Unplanner).

Now we have crumbling interstates that, I've read (and misplaced the source) were intended to last a few decdaes until they could be replaced by an even greater set of roads promising 100mph travel like the German Autobahns. That future, like Mars missions and space colonies of a million residents, will not happen in our lifetimes, if ever. In fact, I would argue forcefully that The Dream, to cite Gibson's story again, looks more like this today. Ironically, it is not far from the sort of life that the Middletons lived in the Westinghouse film, just with more stuff and a larger home.

Continuing The Dream

Today's Futurama? Image from Alter's Post, Cited Below
In a random Google search under "American Excess" (you can tell my bias) I came up with H2PIA, a lovely vision of a eco-friendly suburban future supposedly to be build in Denmark, a nation that is at the forefront of green energy and sustainability.

H2PIA seems at once consonant with the values of Futurama and guilty of some of the same sins. Building this community would require levels of fossil-fuel use, new construction, and legislation that seem unlikely on our side of the ocean. and what about those not so lucky to live in this ecotopia?

We cannot just convert the wretched, poorly built MacMansions of today into this sleek Danish future; most of our furthest-flung suburbs will more likely become slums inhabited by renters as our urban cores resurrect, a process underway now amid the housing crisis.

By the way, H2PIA's site has not been updated since 2006. So much for that brave new world. But I'm a pessimist by nature. I think in America we'll make do with a failing system until a crisis comes, then devise ad-hoc solutions.

Gibson's Virtual Life

William Gibson, whose story "The Gernsback Continuum" explored how our collective unconscious can hold onto lost technological utopias, visited Second Life to give a reading, as he might at a bookstore or university. I have added a few links to YouTube videos about this, as well as small versions of the videos.

Gibson on his reading link and video:

Gibson on a "post geographical feeling" as link and video:

Works Cited:
Alter, Lloyd. "H2PIA: A Vision of a Hydrogen Future" Online post to Treehugger, 7 April 2006. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/04/h2pia_a_vision_2.php 25 February 2008.

General Motors. "Futurama." Parts One and Two. Posted by RetroRacer13. YouTube. 6 November 2006. 25 February 2008.

Gibson, William. "The Gernsback Continuum." Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1987. 23-35.

Unplanner. "Thinking Small." The Unplanning Journal. http://unplanning.blogspot.com/2005/05/thinking-smaller.html. 9 May 2005. 25 February 2008.

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