Sunday, as I was [cue robotic voice] circuiting through satellite channel choices, I ran across Woody Allen’s Sleeper, a movie I found hilarious when I first saw it in 1973 at the Ultravision Theater. The Ultravision is now long gone but in those days was a part of a shopping center located on the corner of Ashley River Road and Highway 7, about five miles north of the downtown peninsula of Charleston, South Carolina.
In the forty-two years since, much has changed around Charleston. For example, Highway 7 in those days was still wooded in spots but now has been renamed Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. We’re talking five lanes of suburban sameness, what James Hillman aptly describes as “the nowhere that is everywhere,” that ubiquitous stretch of fast food franchises, retail outlets, and convenience stores leading into virtually every city in the USA.
The plot of Sleeper tracks Miles Monroe, a latter-day Rip Van Winkle who subjected unwillingly to cryopreservation in 1973 awakens 200 years later to confront the brave new world of the future. In case you haven’t seen it, the movie’s a sort of conflation of Huxley and Hemingway, sci-fi futurism meets the Spanish Civil War, at once a farce and homage to Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin — a dystopian comedy.
Seeing the film again got me thinking about the tricky business of trying to predict the future, an exercise fraught with potential failure. Brave New World missed the monorail at times; 1984, perhaps a more accurate prophecy, nevertheless got some aspects of the future wrong as well.
Watching Sleeper, I started wondering, “How different is a day in 1973 when the movie was released to a day in 2015?” We’re talking 42, not 200 years, but that’s almost half a century, and we’re in a new millennium.
Pretend you’re an anthropologist, detached from our culture. Remember, younger readers, that 1973 was pre-digital, the age of the 8-track cassette, the first non-radio music available for cars and trucks. No email, no personal computers, though some people did have touchtone phones.
What would it be like to have been in suspended animation for the last 42 years and suddenly to find yourself in the year 2015?
* * *
Awakening in 2015 versus 1973
Rather than an ac/dc alarm clock radio chiming you into consciousness, chances are your wake-up mechanism is a small computer roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes but much thinner. This device also offers the ability for you to look at your friends while you communicate with them, whether they’re across the street or half a world away — it’s the “picture phone” futurists used to dream of as a earthshaking marvel — but the truth is that you virtually never use its visual capabilities to communicate with your friends or family, nor do you, in fact, use it to talk to people as you would on a more conventional phone. You prefer to “text” them, to type super-abbreviated messages, like “OMG, CSL!”
Dressing for Work
Surprisingly, dress hasn’t changed all that much at all. No unitard suits with rocket logos hang in the closet. In fact, half the young people you see at the college could be either Bob Dylan or Joan Baez circa ’65.
Although invented in 1946 and marketed as Radarange, microwaves weren’t widely available for residential use until the late-70’s, so the unfrozen-you might be surprised that you can zap a bowl of oatmeal in a minute and a half, but chances are you’d rather pull into the drive-thru lane at Bojangles for some artery-clogging ham biscuits because retrieving the oatmeal from the cabinet, pulling the milk from the fridge, and punching in the cooking time of the oatmeal is way too much trouble.
In fact, one of the significant differences you might notice if you were to awaken after a 42-year nap is the epidemic in obesity that characterizes your 21st century community.
Same ol’, same ol’ — no flying cars, no monorails, no individual jetpacks.
Mass transit hasn’t progressed at all. The T in Boston is even dingier than it was in ’73.
In fact, the coolest vehicles on the roads are the oldest, e.g. that 1973 VW microbus that you just passed driven by some old man with a ponytail.
Here in Charleston, you find routes have widened lane-wise and a skinny lane on the shoulder is reserved for bicycle traffic but that the traffic is terrible, Manhattan-like, bumper-to-[fiberglass]- bumper.
DUI non-licensed drivers still putt around on mopeds with cardboard license “plates” that read “Moped.”
The mini-computer we carry can give us directions while we drive, which truly seems futuristic. Road maps are obsolescent. You can choose either a male or female voice and actually speak into the mini-computer and ask the voice for information.
On the Job
Whether you’re an employee at Boeing, a Seven-Eleven, or a school district, cameras record your comings and goings. Your mini-computer is also equipped with a camera, so it’s not only Orwell’s Big Brother keeping tabs but also corporate brother and little brother — literally, your little brother might record a video of you committing some act of malfeasance.
Chances are, if you work indoors, you spend hours dealing with email, and if you don’t delete them on a daily basis, they proliferate like tapeworms, and even if you’re framing houses in the great outdoors, emails ping in your pocket like pinball machines as your mini-computer receives messages, from not only friends but also from corporations and even conmen.
Oh my God! No more retyping a page because you typed too close to the bottom, no more correction tape, no more spelling errors! You can cut passages and paste them into your document. Virtually any fact can be looked up on a computer, vital information like Lumpy Rutherford’s actual first name on the ’60’s sitcom Leave It to Beaver. It’s the information Age.
After work, you still go to a bar, but chances are you can’t smoke in there, and the number of different beers is staggering. The 25 cent happy hour Bud has given way to the $8 “Avery, the Maharaja Imperial India Pale Ale.” Beer experts slosh malted beverages around their palates distinguishing piney aftertastes and assessing the wattage of the hops.
Broadcast news has not changed one iota – a white male reads to you in between reports from far flung locales.
On the other hand, you can suck virtually any movie you want to see out of the sky instantaneously, even old flicks like the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, a film impossible to see in ’73 unless it miraculously appeared at an arthouse cinema or on the late late show on TV.
You can also record television programs and stop them to go to the toilet, which still looks essentially like it did in 1973.
Or you can groove to music you can purchase 24/7 and listen to immediately. Wanna hear “Working Class Hero” by John and Yoko? No problem. You can download it on your mini-computer for a dollar and a quarter.
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be
(As far as entertainment goes you’re a king or queen).
Keep you doped with religion, and sex, and T.V.
Here’s something that might surprise you. The nation has lurched way way rightward. The Republicans running for president today would consider Richard Nixon a commie. He after he wrote this in 1973:
It is time to bring comprehensive, high quality health care within the reach of every American. [We should] assure comprehensive health insurance protection to millions who cannot now obtain it or afford it, with improved protection against catastrophic illnesses. This will be a plan that maintains the high standards of quality in America’s health care. And it will not require additional taxes.
The current president, although a centrist by European standards, is branded a socialist by his opponents.
Despite the rightward shift in the country, when it comes to social issues, people are much more open-minded. A majority believe gays should have the right to marry, a concept that was as alien in 1973 as the idea that many leading candidates running for the presidency in the 21st century would reject science, not only evolution but also objective data documenting rising temperatures.
Many have left traditional churches that conduct liturgical services and have also abandoned fire-and-brimstone preachers. Instead, they hang out in jeans at megachurches on Sundays and listen to Christian rock performed by live bands.
Many others have abandoned religion altogether.
Still fewer proclaim, as they have for the last 2,000 years, that the end time is near.
These changes have all occurred in my adulthood and therefore I take them for granted. What would seem like a miracle in ’73 – for example to freeze the live broadcast of a football game, back track, and watch a play again in slow motion — seems mundane.
We’re distracted, alienated, walk down the street with our earbuds booming as we stare into that ubiquitous device that we think we can’t live without while songbirds fly over us unheard and unseen.
Still, I can watch a Shakespearean performance virtually whenever I want to, which in a way makes me richer than Nebuchadnezzar.