Monday, September 22, 2014

The Amazing Future of 2008

Amazing predictions of the future! Guaranteed to come true!
Yeah, I admit it, this article would have been a lot better to address six years ago on September 22, 2008, but I wasn’t keeping a blog then. On the other hand, we can just retroject this thing. Pretend that the blog is at this point more than six years old and you’ve stumbled on something I wrote back then. Would it really make it any better. I think a couple of my footnotes aren’t what I would have written six years ago.

The piece I’ve stumbled upon is from the New York Evening World of September 22, 1908. The writer, Helen Vail Wallace, seems to have been a writer of light entertainment pieces; the World has several which are advice to women under the title “Just 1 Minute, Sisters!” each on a different topic (she advises the “fussy and nervous” to take a cool sponge bath daily, and the hasty eater to chew each mouthful thirty times, describing twenty times as “the lowest safe limit”). In her September 22 piece, Ms. Williams is predicting New York of 2008.

I think it’s been pretty well established that prediction is just about the chanciest profession there is. We’ve seen enough failed predictions that I think editors are less likely to publish pieces on the world of fifty or a hundred years in the future. And, of course, Ms. Wallace has no particular speciality here; she writes light entertainment pieces, she’s wasn’t someone likely to examine trends and project them forward.

I could doubtless go on for as long as Ms. Wallace did on the differences between New York in 1908 and today. At the time, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower was yet to be built. Wikipedia notes that it was the tallest building in the world until 1913; it’s currently the forty-second tallest building in New York. She got some things right, but for the most part this piece of fancy describes a New York that never was to be.

I’ve heavily annotated it. Some of my footnotes are clarifications where I think they are needed. Others are just snark.
100 Years From Now In New York
By Helen Vail Wallace

We’ll need no graves in which to sleep,
“One hundred years to come;”
No more we’ll die, no more we’ll weep,“One hundred years to come;”[1]

* * *

Death eliminated. Birth eliminated. Marriage and divorce as we now know it unread of. Race suicide adjusted.[2]

* * *

Time-wasting a thing of the past.[3] Calling cards, calling costumes and social stationery optional.[4] ’Twill be instead, “You’re on my thinking list. Call me up telepathically at from 4 to 4.05 P. M., Thursday. Will reserve entire time for you.”[5] Inharmonious persons cannot communicate; a scientific impossibility.[6] Social deceptions eliminated.[7]

Phonetic spelling used for all necessary or business letters. Superfluities such as “Dear sir” and “Yours truly” dead and gone for decades.[8]

* * *

Slaughter of animals for food or any other reason abandoned. No butchers’ or grocers’ bills. No cooks. No husbands scolding about dinner not on time. No sad wives. No family jars, with the exception of rose-jars.[9] Serenity the order of the day. Condensed tablet food supply sufficient for one month carried in pocket in small flat 2 by 3 inch box. A knowledge of how to extract sustenance from both water and air common to all.[10] No rush lunches. No indigestion. No time lost. No energy wasted; hence no necessary death. Suicide undesired.[11]

* * *

All travel in air-ships. Surface traffic of all sorts abandoned, with the exception of a few noiseless, odorless, harmless LEISURELY autos (only recognized legitimate waste of time) for carrying necessary supplies. All freight traffic underground or by water. City converted into a thickly-settled country, a paradise of flowers, grass and shrubbery, with simple dustless centre roadways[12] for the supply cars. No street sounds but the laughter of happy wordless people or the singing of birds in the trees. All discordant sounds long since departed.

* * *

No more unwashed coin or old unsanitary paper money or bank failures.[13] Thoroughly sterilized “medium of exchange” delivered fresh at door each morning sufficient for the day’s outlay. Equality is the order of the day. Millionaires and tramps both historical monstrosities. Burglars extinct. Poor folks unheard of.

* * *

Street as well as indoor clothing for men and women uniform. Sex distinguished only by colors of garments.[14] Both petticoats and long pants abolished. Legs as universally common and respected as arms.[15] The happy hatless age.[16] Millinery energy of all sorts long ago transmuted into artistic gardening street effects.[17]

* * *

Temperance in all things general. Common sense universal. Policemen and jails unknown. Handcuffs, clubs and uniforms of “the Finest” long since gone into oblivion. All the big, fine men busy being happy and helping others to be so.

* * *

Smiles and hand-claps only recognized as good form in love-making. Kissing eliminated (?).[18] Perfect men. Ideally trained girls. Chaperons abandoned. Undue influence unthought-of. Individual use of brains a sacred right respected by all. Private airships common. To illustrate:

(Telepathic despatch from John Joy, of Chicago, to his harmony-girl, in New York City, June 20, 2008, 10 A. M.). “Meet me over Madison Square Garden Tower at 7.45 P. M. this evening. I have tickets for Prof. Solomon Silent’s latest hit, “Suppressed Sentiment,” music by Eolian Soul Performers. Please wear your pale-blue[19] Greek gown with the golden girdle[20] and sandals you telepathed me about yesterday, and your hair braided and coiled round your head the way I like it. I am wearing the black and gold[21] suit you are partial to.”

(Reply, June 20, 2008, 10.30 A. M. from Sybil Sweetness, of New York City), “This is so sudden, but I’ll be there ON TIME.[22] Please arrange to stay and spend to-morrow over Bay of Fundy with me. We can make the trip before sunrise and spend the day floating over the upper Atlantic. I have a new book for us to enjoy entitled ‘What the People of One Hundred Years Ago Did in Summer.’ It’s very funny. It is by the new historian, Erasmus, Esperanto Ultra.

“Yes, I’ll be there PROMPTLY. By-by.”
How do you think in full caps? Well, Ms. Sweetness seems to know. And everyone gets futuristic surnames: Joy, Sweetness, Silent, and Ultra. I’ll bet they wear capes too. But no hats, she said that.

Ms. Wallace’s vision of a countryfied urban sphere is, of course, in conflict with itself. How is something both countryside and “thickly settled”? If it is thickly settled, where does the “paradise of flowers, grass and shrubbery” go? Gleaming residential towers set among the parks? She doesn’t make it clear.

But, of course, her greatest improbability is right there at the beginning. She’s sort of a proto-transhumanist, as her cities are populated by ageless, healthy, telepathic immortals. No death, birth, or marriage. Her (racist) fears of “race suicide” are clearly mollified by the thought of an unchanging population. Doubtless (and sadly) Ms. Wallace’s vision of the future was probably a homogeneously white population, not one where ethnic background no longer mattered. You poke at utopias long enough and they do end up being someone else’s dystopia.

So we leave Ms. Wallace’s view of a shining New York of 2008. I’ll take the real one myself, even if parts of her vision improve on what the reality really was.

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  1. I haven’t found a source for this poem. Probably Ms. Wallace, and perhaps even why she wrote this piece.  ↩

  2. Nope. No deaths since well before 2008. She got all of that wrong, with the caveat that the very concept of “race suicide” is now held only by racists. It’s the idea that the WASPs will be outbred by everyone else.  ↩

  3. Ms. Wallace seems to be envisioning a future without the Internet, Facebook, and the like. Some would call that a utopia.  ↩

  4. I have social stationery, though it is optional.  ↩

  5. Text messaging, though she gets the procedure wrong. Some of her contemporaries were suggesting that in the future we’d have wireless telegraphy. Send those text messages in Morse code!  ↩

  6. Science has indeed dealt with this.  ↩

  7. Though not entirely.  ↩

  8. Often not used in e-mail, of course.  ↩

  9. “Family jar,” a disagreement. A rose jar is a potpourri.  ↩

  10. Ms. Wallace is overstating the nutritional potential of air and water. They have none.  ↩

  11. “Undesired” as in “no one would want to.”  ↩

  12. Paved roads. How wonderful!  ↩

  13. No more filthy cash? Although credit and bank cards has handled much of that. And the FDIC seems to have dealt with bank failures.  ↩

  14. All men to wear blue. All women to wear pink. Clothing issued by the state. Individual preference on color not permitted. Perhaps she means that there will be one set of colors for men, and a separate set of colors for women.  ↩

  15. In the future decent people will go about with their knees exposed! Shocking!  ↩

  16. Here Ms. Wallace is, sadly, correct. Hats have quite gone out of fashion, though I’ve developed a liking for them myself.  ↩

  17. The people employed to tend the public plantings in my neighborhood would otherwise be making hats?  ↩

  18. If kissing were eliminated (and is the question mark from Ms. Wallace or her editor?), wouldn’t shaking hands take on a much more intimate connotation?  ↩

  19. Clearly on the approved list of colors for women.  ↩

  20. A belt. The sense of an elasticized corset for the lower body comes later.  ↩

  21. From the men’s list of colors. It would seem that the golden belt is somehow exempt, even though men get to wear gold cloth. Also, if clothing is distinguished only by color, does Mr. Joy own a black and gold Greek gown?  ↩

  22. Imagine getting a message in the morning in Chicago and begin able to be in New York for an evening event!  ↩

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