Halfway into the future
This column was meant for September, but as fate would have it, a few other things got in the way — the presidential election, various school shootings, the demise of Twinkies — that deserved some commentary. However, the start of a new year is just as good a time to talk about this subject: the future.
What was special about September? A groundbreaking science-fiction cartoon, The Jetsons, was first broadcast on September 23, 1962. The world it described — the flying-car future — was that of 2062. So September 2012 was right in between. We're halfway there. Yippee!
The series is an ode to progress. The Jetsons — everyman George Jetson; Jane, his wife; his boy, Elroy; and daughter Judy — live in a building that looks like the Seattle Space Needle (which opened five months before the series went on the air). Moving sidewalks and moving furniture take them wherever they want to go, and machines do nearly all of their work. When they're functioning properly, that is — the series is also a satire.
George still goes to work three days a week, but he does so in a flying car that folds up into his briefcase. His job is pushing buttons, but he finds it strenuous: "Boy, these three-hour work days are killing me!" he complains. George's boss, Mr. Spacely, is so temperamental that he often fires George, then rehires him only minutes later.
Jane sits around all day, except when she's out shopping or looking after her six-year-old boy genius: "Elroy, you've been splitting atoms again!" ("Just a few, Mom!" he responds.) Judy is a superficial high-schooler obsessed with fashion and pop singers; she speaks a "space slang" that her parents only half-understand.
Naturally, they have a talking dog and a robot maid. But aside from them, The Jetsons says as much about the early 1960s as it does about the 2060s. Fifty years ago, modern appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines took over a lot of work that humans did, particularly in the home. It did not seem unreasonable to extrapolate this to a point when people — women in particular — wouldn't do any work at all.
What happened instead, though — and right around 1962, in fact — was that with less of a burden in the household, women joined the regular workforce in larger numbers. The complaint often expressed today that no individual can earn enough to support an entire family, as was common in the 1950s, has to do with the same total earnings being spread over twice as many people in the workforce. The Jetsons certainly didn't see that coming.
Jane Jetson's biggest concern is that it's a cloudy day. She asks the building's maintenance man to raise the apartment by 1,000 feet to take it out of the clouds. He complies, and everyone's happy.
A 1980s revival of the series, and particularly The Jetsons movie of 1990, turn this into an environmental theme. Unlike in the original series, where the characters walk on the grass-covered ground from time to time, the latter-day Jetsons live so far up because the world below them is too polluted. They live not in a utopia, but a dystopia.
Then again, the utopia might be overrated. All versions of The Jetsons agree that in human terms, the future might not be very different from the present. Most people are just as dumb, lazy and superficial in 2062 as they are now, and they'll never be satisfied with what they have.
This might explain why we've seen The Jetsons in so many other forms: as The Honeymooners in a sitcom from the 1950s; as The Flintstones, which directly inspired The Jetsons; and in more recent years as The Simpsons.
In other words, we can look forward to the future, but not expect too much.
Read my earlier commentary on flying cars and 160-story buildings: Welcome to tomorrow