November 16, 2012
Interest in the life of legendary inventor Nikola Tesla has seen a tremendous resurgence in the past two decades. And with good reason. The man was a genius who was able to take so many of the ideas swirling around in the 19th century ether and turn them into fantastic new inventions — both real and imagined. Tesla’s wondrous imagination made him quite the futurist and here at the Paleofuture blog we’ve looked at some of his remarkably prescient predictions over the past few years.
But the 21st century’s rather fashionable interest in Tesla has had some disturbing side effects. Specifically, people want to canonize the man (sometimes literally) and turn his personal and professional struggles into a sort of morality tale involving clearly delineated characters: some ostensibly good and others ostensibly evil.
Tesla boosters of the 21st century will tell you that Tesla was the embodiment of all that is good in the world — Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal did just that in one of his more recent comics, “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.” They’ll tell you that Tesla’s struggles against professional adversaries like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse (both of whom Tesla worked for at various points in his life) were the most pure examples of good versus evil. This past year, people have been crowdfunding museums and films and any number of other events in an attempt to raise Tesla’s profile and are constantly couching his work in moralistic terms. But I hope that with this renewed excitement for the life’s work of a great inventor people don’t lose sight of one thing: he was a brilliant man, but he was just a man.
Like any man, Tesla was far from perfect and sometimes had very warped ideas about how the world should operate. One of Tesla’s most disturbing ideas was his belief in using eugenics to purify the human race. In the 1930s, Tesla expressed his belief that the forced sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill — which was occurring in some European countries (most disturbingly Nazi Germany) and in many states in the U.S. — wasn’t going far enough. He believed that by the year 2100 eugenics would be “universally established” as a system of weeding out undesirable people from the population.
The February 9, 1935 issue of Liberty magazine includes many other fascinating predictions by Tesla for the future of humanity, which we’ll no doubt look at in the weeks ahead. But for the time being I’ve transcribed only the eugenics portion of Tesla’s predictions below, to remind us that we should be cautious when making gods of men:
The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.
The ideas behind eugenics would become substantially less popular after World War II, for obvious reasons. I doubt that Tesla understood the scope of the atrocities that were being committed in Europe (and at the hands of the California eugenics movement) at the time. But again, his ideas were clear: the world should be rid of so-called undesirables. However unpleasant the idea of eugenics is to reasonable people on its surface, this notion seems particularly strange coming from a man like Tesla, whose own mental illnesses would have likely put him in the “undesirable” category under any authoritarian regime.
October 3, 2012
EPCOT Center opened on October 1, 1982 as the single most expensive private construction project the world had ever seen. It was immediately viewed by Disney purists as a shadow of Walt Disney’s utopian dream to build a dynamic city of technology and innovation. EPCOT was originally supposed to be a real city; alive with mass transit systems, a vibrant city center and a healthy dose of residential life. Corporations, as Walt explained in a 1966 film produced just a few months before his death, were to use Epcot as a proving ground for new innovations. One imagines this might include new chemical solvents or food additives aside from the more obvious examples of postwar gadgetry like small appliances and robot maids.
Disney believed that by the mid-1960s urban America was beyond repair and that the answer to our nation’s problems lie in starting from scratch. A new city was to be built with the interests of both massive multinational corporations and pedestrians in mind. But after Disney’s death in late 1966, the vision for “the Florida Project” was scaled down dramatically. Instead, EPCOT — the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — became a theme park. This theme park was to be a permanent World’s Fair at the end of the World Fair’s golden age.
But if you could get past the fact that it was just a theme park, and not a radical experiment in building a futuristic city from the ground up, Epcot was still pretty neat. It’s a sprawling park divided into two parts: Future World and World Showcase. Future World purports to show off the latest in science and technology and has pavilions dedicated to such topics as energy, the ocean, agriculture, transportation and space. While World Showcase includes pavilions featuring various countries from around the world, including Norway, Mexico, Japan and Germany among others.
I’d argue that Walt Disney World’s Epcot (it’s no longer an acronym) is an important bellwether of America’s comfort with science and technology. Today, a trip to Disney World is a rite of passage for many American families. Epcot, one of the four theme parks that comprise Walt Disney World, is the third most visited theme park in the United States. Only Disneyland in Anaheim and the Magic Kingdom in Orlando (another Walt Disney World park) surpass it in attendance. This place of prominence in the American psyche means that at its best Epcot should function as a kind of ever-changing monument to science — much in the same way that the great American World’s Fairs of the last century did.
My first trip to Epcot was in 1989 at just five years old. I’ve quite literally grown up there, having been numerous times since. My parents and two brothers have made it a habit to dissect the minute changes that take place in the park each year, but as I step back and take a more distanced view of this admittedly artificial environment that I’ve grown up with, I become concerned for what it means to Americans as a reflection of what we value.
With kids competently pushing pixels on their parents’ iPhones before they can even speak, what kind of role does Epcot play in the education of the American family? What does the pathetically static exhibit Innoventions communicate to kids about the future of technology in a theme park that purports to be about the future? Does Epcot offer the latest in technological wonders that it promised when it opened in 1982? What kind of tone does Epcot set for science education in this country? And am I overthinking what is supposed to be an entertaining experience for people?
I credit Epcot with introducing me to retro-futurism — exploring how generations of the past viewed the future. It was in the early 1990s (when I was still a kid) that I started to think of Epcot as retro-futuristic. I hadn’t yet heard such a word, but I knew even then that Epcot was a vision of the future from the past. The monorails and the Dippin’ Dots and the silver rainbow jumpsuits didn’t represent the futuristic world of 50 years hence, it was the Mickey Mouse future as imagined in 1982.
The last time I visited Epcot (in 2010) the Innoventions pavilion in the heart of Epcot showcased Segways as the hot transportation technology of the future. But of course you’re more likely to hear the word “Segway” used as a punchline than see it as a practical mode of transportation these days. When Segways represent the future of transportation a decade into the 21st century, you begin to wonder where the last ten years went. And how Epcot, a place of tremendous nostalgia for me, can become a symbol of the future again.
October 6, 2011
After the news of Steve Jobs’ death hit the Internet last night I sat for a bit reading heartfelt messages on Twitter. It wasn’t lost on me that I was sitting at an Apple computer while my iPhone sat on the desk next to me. Like many people around the world, I own some of the futuristic tools that Jobs helped give to the world.
A great number of people on Twitter were comparing Steve Jobs to other notable visionaries of the past: Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla. But it was a comparison that James Lileks made last night that felt most appropriate. Lileks wrote on Twitter, “My daughter’s really sad Steve Jobs died. For her generation, it’s like losing Walt Disney.”
Jobs was truly a futurist in the tradition of talented showmen and a storytellers like Walt Disney. It’s one thing to understand what the future might hold, as I believe both Jobs and Disney did, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to communicate that vision of the future with both passion and poise to a broad audience. Jobs, like Disney, brought into our homes that passion for innovation and a confidence in technology’s ability to improve our lives.
Steve Jobs certainly had his detractors both in and outside of the tech community. It was easy to parody the particularly intense zeal that so many had for Apple products, and by extension the special brand of technological optimism that Jobs presented with sincerity. But it’s both the sincerity and the optimism in his presentation of the future that made Jobs so special today. Sincerity and optimism make futurists vulnerable, especially during dark economic times. In 2011, it takes tremendous fortitude to present hopeful futures that aren’t drenched in a thick mist of ironic detachment or futile pessimism. This is not to say that a healthy skepticism is not an essential skill to exercise when dealing with futurism, but sometimes people romanticize a version of the past that shows its own kind of naivete.
Victor Cohn, in his 1956 book 1999: Our Hopeful Future, helped put this idea of technological pessimism into perspective:
“The prophets of misery and robotism too often focus their sights on the cocktail party instead of the school. They describe the life of past generations in nostalgic terms, but do not really compare the lives of average housewives or factory workers today with the lives of their grandparents and with the drudgery, ignorance and poverty that characterized and blackened the past.”
Futurism is a great foil for the concerns and problems of any age. The pages of Judge and Puck magazines at the turn of the 20th century delivered important social and political commentary through tongue-in-cheek futurism. But it’s the wide-eyed optimists — the dreamers of every decade — who were often sticking out their necks by believing that the future could be better for humanity.
The optimistic future of jetpacks and robots and space travel that so many pine for today was presented by men like Walt Disney through television and film. With any luck, future generations may very well point to the optimistic visions of Steve Jobs as yet another golden age of futurism.