I am too young to have seen Star Wars in the theatres. In any case, being humble rural folk, I couldn’t afford the movie ticket and parental bribe needed to get “to town.” That’s also why I missed ET, and only got to see it on the big screen about five years ago at a community fundraiser.
How poor were we in the 1980s? We didn’t even own a VCR! Remember those? Once in a while my family rented a VCR—that’s right, rented the whole machine—and a few tapes. We would movie binge on the weekend with popcorn cooked in a wretchedly burnt and perpetually greasy pot while my sister curled up on my mother’s lap and my dad let me sip the head off his homemade beer.
Movie nights were great times for us. But we as kids felt left behind as the cables for 57 channels of awesome hung from pole to pole down our road, but never connected to our house.
We had two channels thanks to an elaborate concoction of clothes hangers and cable wire taped along TV room wall like an unruly ivy. So we spent our afternoons and Saturdays watching cartoons and reruns. I didn’t know that the reruns were very old until much later.
At one point my grandmother took pity on me. Knowing my love for horses and my lack of cable TV, she took me to my first theatre movie: Phar Lap. That’s right, that classic underhorse story that we all remember so much and put me at the centre of the pop culture scene as a child in the late 80s. Has anyone, anywhere ever heard of that film?
In time, as the decade came to a close, I was able to get up to speed on 80s screentime. Besides SciFi adaptations, apocalyptic Made for TV Movies, and just about anything John Hughes ever did, I was struck by the power of Back to the Future. It is a genius film, and a pretty good series overall. I miss Michael J. Fox, even if he played the same character in everything he ever did (except for The American President).
As today is “Back to the Future Day”—4:29pm on October 21st, 2015 to be precise—I thought it would be a great moment to ask the question, “Why don’t we live in the future?” Why is it that the 2015 of Back to the Future II not like the 2015 that you and I are living in?
You know what I’m talking about. Sure, we’ve got hover boards, interactive video games, and bionic implants—if you are super rich. We don’t have thumbprint credit—which is probably for the best—but we have flatscreen TVs. Our houses could be much more wired if we really wanted them to be, but we are far away from comfortable TV-phones in most homes, and the robotic fruit tray doesn’t work well in my kitchen. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we don’t have rapid rehydration machines, but Google glasses are a bit of a flop when it comes to rising up to the genius of Steven Spielberg’s imaginative team.
Back to the Future II did figure out that we could swipe credit cards just about anywhere, but it was an absolute bomb on fashion. Inside out pockets and florescent colours might have been a hit in the late 80s and early 90s, but not today. Strange floral yoga pants are a thing now, I see, but our clothing fashions aren’t that different than 30 years ago. Shoulders are less heightened and hair is a bit more relaxed (Frankie would be pleased), but things have evolved slowly. If anything, we’ve managed to ace the mass individualization goal: no one ever wears the same outfit as someone else in the same school, yet all the clothes look remarkably the same. How does that happen?
All well and good. But where are the super cool features of the future? You know what I mean. How come we can’t control the weather? After last winter, I have a legitimate complaint against 1985 futurists. Where are those powered laces and clothes that autofit? I can’t even get pants that work with my body, let alone jackets that dry themselves and adjust the sleeves. Since Obama was elected we’ve had holographs, and it turns out they are kind of lame. But how come we’ve still got lawyers? The “Doc” was pretty clear about that.
And, of course, the one that we have all been waiting for: How come we don’t have flying cars?
I should warn people, I knew a decade ago that this wasn’t going to happen at a commercial level. I talked to leading aeronautic innovators, and they told me that creating a safe, affordable flying car was still generations away. I was crushed, but they offered me a hot dog. It was an open house, and I felt better.
I feel like Christopher Lloyd promised me an aero-car conversion for $39,995.95. And if a taxi to the suburbs is $174.50 and you need $50 to buy a Pepsi, I should be able to get my car up in the air for about $10k.
Where’s my flying car?
So, we are left with the real question: How come we don’t live in the future?
First, our technological invention went small rather than big. Instead of big flying cars, we’ve got digital connectivity never before imagined, except by Al Gore. True, we can’t move things with our mind when playing video games, but we’ve got amazing
videographics—even if the storylines of video games are still a bit boxy. P2P file sharing, VOIP, social networking, microchip trackers in our cereal boxes and microcomputers in the teensy-weensy back pockets of our skinny jeans: who could have predicted how the world could become so big by becoming so small?
Still, with all this connectivity, why haven’t we figured out how to invent autofit clothing, flying cars, and a world where there is real justice?
Believe it or not, the answer has to do with the first reason.
In 1955, Marty struggled with the Pepsi bottle in the same way that he struggled in 2015. We don’t have bottles today: Prince Edward Island was one of the last places to hold out against cans, but our Anne of Green Gable ways have disappeared. What the Pepsi bottle did in the Back to the Future films was to show how foreign a generation’s “normal” is to another. It is true that back in 1985, most of what we imagined would happen in the 21st century hasn’t taken place.
What really made the difference, though, was prophesied in that first Back to the Future film. Remember when Michael J. Fox went back to 1955 and his future Mom got the hots for him? His future Mom’s father—Marty’s grandfather-to-be—rolls a TV set into the dining room. All the faces at the table turn toward the glowing screen.
And that is why we aren’t living in the future. We aren’t living in the future because most of us are living in front of glowing screens. We aren’t inventing the technology of the future for the same reason we aren’t connect in real life: our heads our tilted down at thumbs tapping out narcissistic messages to the world on social media; our fingers are tapping out words on a blog for nameless, faceless people to read; our remote controls are pointing at Netflix instead of the future. We are playing video games instead of going out and driving fast cars or winning the girl (or boy) or slaying those latent dragons in our wildernesses.
Frankly, the reason we haven’t invented flying cars is that we are too busy updating our Facebook statuses or pressing publish on WordPress. The reason we aren’t creating spaces of justice for everyone is that we are levelling up on the newest MMO or RPG, or texting a friend about a bad smell coming from the other side of the room. Hashtag #putrid.
And, of course, we aren’t creating a new future because we are lining up to watch Back to the Future reruns at the local theatre this weekend.
Which brings us full circle. As we celebrate Back to the Future Day, we are left with this truth: Any civilization sophisticated enough to invent 57 channels of entertainment will never invent the things we imagine will happen in the future because all our great minds have spent their childhoods on couches watching a flashing screen or wandering zombie-like down hallways thumb-tapping the mundane moments of their day out into the twittersphere.
Of course, what do I know? I spent all morning on this blog instead of designing the flux capacitor.
Happy Back to the Future Day!