April 26, 2013
“Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!” says private detective Eddie Valiant in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Set in 1947, Eddie is a car-less Angeleno and the movie tells the tale of a an evil corporation buying up the city’s streetcars in its greedy quest to force people out of public transit and into private automobiles. Eddie Valiant’s line was a wink at audiences in 1988 who knew quite well that public transportation was now little more than a punchline.
Aside from Detroit there’s no American city more identified with the automobile than Los Angeles. In the 20th century, the Motor City rose to prominence as the home of the Big Three automakers, but the City of Angels is known to outsiders and locals alike for its confusing mess of freeways and cars that crisscross the city — or perhaps as writer Dorothy Parker put it, crisscross the “72 suburbs in search of a city.”
Los Angeles is notorious for being hostile to pedestrians. I know plenty of Angelenos who couldn’t in their wildest dreams imagine navigating America’s second largest city without a car. But I’ve spent the past year doing just that.
About a year and a half ago I went down to the parking garage underneath my apartment building and found that my car wouldn’t start. One thing I learned when I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 was that a one-bedroom apartment doesn’t come with a refrigerator, but it does come with a parking space. “We only provide the essentials,” my apartment’s building manager explained to me when I asked about this regional quirk of the apartment rental market. Essentials, indeed.
My car (a silver 1998 Honda Accord with tiny pockets of rust from the years it survived harsh Minnesota winters) probably just had a problem with its battery, but I really don’t know. A strange mixture of laziness, inertia, curiosity and dwindling funds led me to wonder how I might get around the city without wheels. A similar non-ideological adventure began when I was 18 and thought “I wonder how long I can go without eating meat?” (The answer was apparently two years.)
Living in L.A. without a car has been an interesting experiment; one where I no longer worry about fluctuations in the price of gas but sometimes shirk social functions because getting on the bus or train doesn’t appeal to me on a given day. It’s been an experiment where I wonder how best to stock up on earthquake disaster supplies (I just ordered them online) and how to get to Pasadena to interview scientists at JPL (I just broke down and rented a car for the day). The car — my car — has been sitting in that parking spot for over a year now, and for the most part it’s worked out pretty well.
But how did Los Angeles become so automobile-centric? How did Angeleno culture evolve (or is it devolve?) to the point where not having a car is seen as such a strange thing?
Los Angeles owes its existence as a modern metropolis to the railroad. When California became a state in 1850, Los Angeles was just a small frontier town of about 4,000 people dwarfed by the much larger Californian cities of San Francisco and Sacramento. Plagued by crime, some accounts claimed that L.A. suffered a murder a day in 1854. But this tiny violent town, referred to as Los Diablos (the devils) by some people in the 1850s would become a boomtown ready for a growth explosion by the 1870s.
From the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1876 until the late 1920s, the City of Angels experienced incredibly rapid population growth. And this growth was no accident. The L.A. Chamber of Commerce, along with the railroad companies, aggressively marketed the city as one of paradise — a place where all your hopes and dreams could come true. In the late 19th century Los Angeles was thought to be the land of the “accessible dream” as Tom Zimmerman explains in his book Paradise Promoted.
Los Angeles was advertised as the luxurious city of the future; a land of both snow-capped mountains and beautiful orange groves — where the air was clean, the food was plentiful and the lifestyle was civilized. In the 1880s, the methods of attracting new people to the city involved elaborate and colorful ad campaigns by the railroads. And people arrived in trains stuffed to capacity.
With the arrival of the automobile in the late 1890s the City of Angels began experimenting with the machine that would dramatically influence the city’s landscape. The first practical electric streetcars were started in the late 1880s, replacing the rather primitive horse-drawn railways of the 1870s. The mass transit system was actually borne of real estate developers who built lines to not only provide long term access to their land, but also in the very immediate sense to sell that land to prospective buyers.
By the 1910s there were two major transit players left: The Los Angeles Streetway streetcar company (LARY and often known as the Yellow Cars) and the Pacific Electric Railway (PE and often known simply as the Red Cars).
No one would mistake Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for a documentary, but the film has done a lot to cement a particular piece of L.A. mythology into the popular imagination. Namely, that it was the major car companies who would directly put the public transit companies out of business when they “purchased” them in the 1940s and shut them down. In reality, the death of L.A.’s privately-owned mass transit would be foreshadowed in the 1910s and would be all but certain by the end of the 1920s.
By the 1910s the streetcars were already suffering from widespread public dissatisfaction. The lines were seen as increasingly undependable and riders complained about crowded trains. Some of the streetcar’s problems were a result of the automobile crowding them out in the 1910s, congesting the roads and often causing accidents that made service unreliable. Separating the traffic of the autos, pedestrians and streetcars were seen as a priority that would not be realized until the late 20th century. As Scott L. Bottles notes in his book Los Angeles and the Automobile, “As early as 1915, [the L.A. Public Board of Utilities] called for plans to separate these trains from regular street traffic with elevated or subway lines.”
The recession-plagued year 1914 saw the explosive rise of the “jitney,” an unlicensed taxi that took passengers for just a nickel. The private streetcar companies refused to improve their service in a time of recession and as a result drove more and more people to alternatives like the jitney and buying their own vehicle.
The Federal Road Act of 1916 would jumpstart the nation’s funding of road construction and maintenance, providing matching funding to states. But it was the Roaring Twenties that would set Los Angeles on an irreversible path as a city dominated by the automobile. L.A.’s population of about 600,000 at the start of the 1920s more than doubled during the decade. The city’s cars would see an even greater increase, from 161,846 cars registered in L.A. County in 1920 to 806,264 registered in 1930. In 1920 Los Angeles had about 170 gas stations. By 1930 there were over 1,500.
This early and rapid adoption of the automobile in the region is the reason that L.A. was such a pioneer in the area of automotive-centric retailing. The car of the 1920s changed the way that people interacted with the city and how it purchased goods, for better and for worse. As Richard Longstreth notes in his 2000 book, The Drive-In, The Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercials Space in Los Angeles, the fact that Southern California was the “primary spawning ground for the super service station, the drive-in market, and the supermarket” was no coincidence. Continuing the trend of the preceding decades, the population of Los Angeles swelled tremendously in the 1910s and ’20s, with people arriving by the thousands.
“This burgeoning middle class created one of the highest incidences of automobile ownership in the nation, and both the diffuse nature of the settlement and a mild climate year-round yielded an equally high rate of automobile use,” Longstreth explains. The city, unencumbered by the geographic restrictions of places like San Francisco and Manhattan quickly grew outward rather than upward; fueled by the car and quite literally fueled by the many oil fields right in the city’s backyard. Just over the hills that I can see from my apartment building lie oil derricks. Strange metal robots in the middle of L.A. dotting the landscape, bobbing for that black gold to which we’ve grown so addicted.
Los Angeles would see and turn down many proposals for expanded public transit during the first half of the 20th century. In 1926 the Pacific Electric built a short-running subway in the city but it did little to fix the congestion problems that were happening above ground.
In 1926 there was a big push to build over 50 miles of elevated railway in Los Angeles. The city’s low density made many skeptical that Los Angeles could ever support public transit solutions to its transportation woes in the 20th century. The local newspapers campaigned heavily against elevated railways downtown, even going so far as to send reporters to Chicago and Boston to get quotes critical of those cities’ elevated railways. L.A.’s low density was a direct result of the city’s most drastic growth occurring in the 1910s and ‘20s when automobiles were allowing people to spread out and build homes in far flung suburbs and not be tied to public transit to reach the commercial and retail hub of downtown.
As strange as it may seem today, the automobile was seen by many as the progressive solution to the transportation problems of Los Angeles in the 1920s. The privately owned rail companies were inflating their costs and making it impossible for the city to buy them out. Angelenos were reluctant to to subsidize private rail, despite their gripes with service. Meanwhile, both the city and the state continued to invest heavily in freeways. In 1936 Fortune magazine reported on what they called rail’s obsolescence.
Though the city’s growth stalled somewhat during the Great Depression it picked right back up again during World War II. People were again moving to the city in droves looking for work in this artificial port town that was fueling the war effort on the west coast. But at the end of the war the prospects for mass transit in L.A. were looking as grim as ever.
In 1951 the California assembly passed an act that established the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. The Metro Transit Authority proposed a monorail between the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles. A 1954 report issued to the Transit Authority acknowledged the unique challenges of the region, citing its low density, high degree of car ownership and current lack of any non-bus mass rapid transit in the area as major hurdles.
The July 1954 issue of Fortune magazine saw postwar expansion brought on by the car as an almost insurmountable challenge for the urban planner of the future:
As a generation of city and regional planners can attest, it is no simple matter to draw up a transit system that will meet modern needs. In fact, some transportation experts are almost ready to concede that the decentralization of urban life, brought about by the automobile, has progressed so far that it may be impossible for any U.S. city to build a self-supporting rapid-transit system. At the same time, it is easy to show that highways are highly inefficient for moving masses of people into and out of existing business and industrial centers.
Somewhat interestingly, that 1954 proposal to the L.A. Metro Transit Authority called their monorail prescription “a proper beginning of mass rapid transit throughout Los Angeles County.” It was as if the past five decades had been forgotten.
Longtime Los Angeles resident Ray Bradbury never drove a car. Not even once. When I asked him why, he said that he thought he’d “be a maniac” behind the wheel. A year ago this month I walked to his house which was about a mile north of my apartment (uphill) and arrived dripping in sweat. Bradbury was a big proponent of establishing monorail lines in Los Angeles. But as Bradbury wrote in a 2006 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, he believed the Metro line from downtown to Santa Monica (which now stretches to Culver City and is currently being built to reach Santa Monica) was a bad idea. He believed that his 1960s effort to promote monorails in Los Angeles made a lot more sense financially.
Bradbury said of his 1963 campaign, “During the following 12 months I lectured in almost every major area of L.A., at open forums and libraries, to tell people about the promise of the monorail. But at the end of that year nothing was done.” Bradbury’s argument was that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for transportation in their city.
With the continued investment in highways and the public repeatedly voting down funding for subways and elevated railways at almost every turn (including our most recent ballot’s Measure J which would have extended a sales tax increase in Los Angeles County to be earmarked for public transportation construction) it’s hard to argue that anyone but the state of California, the city of Los Angeles, and the voting public are responsible for the automobile-centric state of the city.
But admittedly the new Metro stop in Culver City has changed my life. Opened in June of last year, it has completely transformed the way that I interact with my environment. While I still may walk as far as Hollywood on occasion (about 8 miles), I’m able to get downtown in about 25 minutes. And from Downtown to Hollywood in about the same amount of time.
Today, the streetcars may be returning to downtown L.A. with construction starting as early as 2014 pending quite a few more hurdles. Funding has nearly been secured for the project which would again put streetcars downtown by 2016.
But even with all of L.A.’s progress in mass transit, my car-less experiment will probably come to a close this year. Life is just easier with a car in a city that still has a long way to go in order to make places like Santa Monica, Venice, the Valley and (perhaps most crucially for major cities trying to attract businesses and promote tourism) the airport accessible by train.
But until then my car will remain parked downstairs. I’ll continue to walk almost everywhere, and you can be sure I’ll dream of the L.A. monorails that never were.
April 18, 2013
Earlier this week I had the rare opportunity to meet with archivists from Warner Brothers and got a peek at their archive of Jetsons material. As you can imagine, I was in paleofuture nerd heaven.
I shot a segment here in L.A. with “CBS Sunday Morning” (airing
this Sunday April 28th) about the impact of “The Jetsons” on the way that we think about the future in the year 2013. We touched on my recently wrapped project that looked at all 24 episodes of the original series and, aside from being a nervous mess, I think the interview went well! Afterward I was able to travel up to Burbank where Lee Cowan spoke with Sam Register from Warner Brothers animation. They looked at storyboards and talked about some of the tech from the show—some of which has been realized, with many more (as regular Paleofuture readers know) still a fantasy here in the 21st century.
The archivists were kind enough to let me snap a few pictures.
“The Jetsons” TV show was produced by legendary animation studio Hanna-Barbera but its library became part of Turner Broadcasting in 1991 and then became part of Warner Animation when Turner was purchased by Time Warner in 1996.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Warner Brothers archive doesn’t include a single animation cel from the original 1962-63 series (though they had some from the 1980s). As the archivists explained to me, the cels weren’t seen as something worth holding on to after an episode was finished. I suppose since the individual cels weren’t considered to be part of the final product, saving cels must’ve seemed to those midcentury animators at Hanna-Barbera like the equivalent to saving mere tools (like, say pencils).
One archivist explained that in the early 1960s many animation studios even had cel washers that would clean paint completely off the cels when a production was finished because the studios saw the plastic as more valuable than preservation. He said that it wasn’t until Disney started selling the animation cels for dirt cheap in the Disneyland park (maybe $7 a pop) that anyone realized there might be a market for these things after a cartoon or movie was finished.
I took a few photos of sketches from the archive (the most fascinating being the early sketch, below, of Judy looking rather sedate and conservatively dressed), but you can see even more if you tune in to “CBS Sunday Morning” on
April 21st! April 28th!
April 5, 2013
Imagine a world where the only media you consume serves to reinforce your particular set of steadfast political beliefs. Sounds like a pretty far-out dystopia, right? Well, in 1969, Internet pioneer Paul Baran predicted just that.
In a paper titled “On the Impact of the New Communications Media Upon Social Values,” Baran (who passed away in 2011) looked at how Americans might be affected by the media landscape of tomorrow. The paper examined everything from the role of media technology in the classroom to the social effects of the portable telephone — a device not yet in existence that he predicted as having the potential to disrupt our lives immensely with unwanted calls at inopportune times.
Perhaps most interestingly, Baran also anticipated the political polarization of American media; the kind of polarization that media scholars here in the 21st century are desperately trying to better understand.
Baran understood that with an increasing number of channels on which to deliver information, there would be more and more preaching to the choir, as it were. Which is to say, that when people of the future find a newspaper or TV network or blog (which obviously wasn’t a thing yet) that perfectly fits their ideology and continuously tells them that their beliefs are correct, Americans will see little reason to communicate meaningfully with others who don’t share those beliefs.
Baran saw the media’s role as a unifying force that contributed to national cohesion; a shared identity and sense of purpose. With more specialized channels at their disposal (political or otherwise) then Americans would have very little overlap in the messages they received. This, Baran believed, would lead to political instability and increased “confrontation” on the occasions when disparate voices would actually communicate with each other.
Baran wrote in 1969:
A New Difficulty in Achieving National Cohesion. A stable national government requires a measure of cohesion of the ruled. Such cohesion can be derived from an implicit mutual agreement on goals and direction — or even on the processes of determining goals and direction. With the diversity of information channels available, there is a growing ease of creating groups having access to distinctly differing models of reality, without overlap. For example, nearly every ideological group, from the student underground to the John Birchers, now has its own newspapers. Imagine a world in which there is a sufficient number of TV channels to keep each group, and in particular the less literate and tolerant members of the groups, wholly occupied? Will members of such groups ever again be able to talk meaningfully to one another? Will they ever obtain at least some information through the same filters so that their images of reality will overlap to some degree? Are we in danger of creating by electrical communications such diversity within society as to remove the commonness of experience necessary for human communication, political stability, and, indeed, nationhood itself? Must “confrontation” increasingly be used for human communication?
National political diversity requires good will and intelligence to work comfortably. The new visual media are not an unmixed blessing. This new diversity causes one to hope that the good will and intelligence of the nation is sufficiently broad-based to allow it to withstand the increasing communication pressures of the future.
The splintering of mass media in the United States over the past half a century has undoubtedly led to the stark “differing models of reality” that Baran describes. The true believers of any ideology will tow the party line and draw strength from their particular team’s media outlets. But the evidence remains inconclusive when it comes to the average American. Simply put, there’s not a lot of evidence that people who aren’t already highly engaged politically will be influenced by partisan media sources to become more radical or reactionary as the case may be.
Writing in the Annual Review of Political Science this year, Markus Prior explains, “Ideologically one-sided news exposure may be largely confined to small, but highly involved and influential segment of the population.” However, “there is not firm evidence that partisan media are making ordinary Americans more partisan.”
Stepping back and looking at ourselves from the perspective of a future historian, it’s easy to argue that we could still be in the early days of highly-polarized mass media. The loosening and eventual elimination of the FCC’s fairness doctrine in the 1980s saw the rise of talk radio hosts unhindered by the need to give opposing viewpoints equal airtime. The rise of the web in the mid-1990s then delivered even more channels for political voices to deliver their messages through the young Internet. User-generated online video saw its rise with the birth of YouTube in the mid-2000s allowing for the dissemination of visual media without many of the regulations politicians and content creators must normally adhere to when broadcasting over the public airwaves. The rise of social media in this decade has seen everyone from your grandmother to hate groups being given a platform to air their grievances. And tomorrow, who knows?
Just how much more polarized our nation’s mainstream political voices can become remains to be seen. But it may be safe to say that when it comes to a lack of message overlap and increased political diversity in new forms of media, Paul Baran’s 1969 predictions have long since become a reality.
March 29, 2013
This is the last in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The final episode of the first season (and only season until a mid-1980s revival) of “The Jetsons” originally aired on March 17, 1963, and was titled “Elroy’s Mob.”
In the opening sequence of each episode of “The Jetsons” we see young Elroy dropped off at the Little Dipper School. Down he goes, dropped from the family car in his little bubble top flying saucer; his purple and green lunchbox in hand. Despite this, viewers of the show don’t get many peeks at what education in the future is supposed to look like. All of that changes in the last episode. Here the story revolves around Elroy’s performance in school and a bratty little kid named Kenny Countdown. It’s report card day (or report tape, this being the retrofuture and all) and the obnoxious Kenny swaps Elroy’s report tape (which has all A’s) for his own (which not only has four D’s and an F, but also an H).
Elroy brings his report tape home and naturally gets in trouble for getting such low marks. The confusion and anger are settled after Kenny’s dad makes him call the Jetsons on their videophone and explain himself. But by then the damage had been done. Elroy ran away from home with his dog Astro and proceeded to get mixed up with some common criminals. (Based on the last 24 episodes of the Jetsons you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that maybe 50 percent of people in the year 2063 are mobsters, bank robbers and thieves.)
All of this trouble with the boys’ report tapes starts in the classroom, where Elroy’s teacher is passing out the tapes. According to little Elroy: “And eight trillion to the third power times the nuclear hypotenuse equals the total sum of the triganomic syndrome divided by the supersonic equation.” Elroy’s teacher, Ms. Brainmocker, praises little Elroy for his correct answer (perhaps gibberish is rewarded in the future?). But we have reason to believe that maybe Elroy’s answer isn’t correct. You see, his teacher is having a tough day because she’s malfunctioning. Because Ms. Brainmocker is a robot.
Aside from the vicious fights over racial segregation in our nation’s schools, one of the most pressing educational concerns of the 1950s and ’60s was that the flood of Baby Boomers entering school would bring the system to its knees. New schools were being built at an incredibly rapid pace all across the country, but there just didn’t seem to be enough teachers to go around. Were robot teachers and increased classroom automation the answers to alleviating this stress?
As Lawrence Derthick told the Associated press in 1959, the stresses of the baby boom would only get worse in coming years with more kids being born and entering school and the number of teachers unable to keep pace with this population explosion: “1959-60 will be the 15th consecutive year in which enrollment has increased. He added this trend, with attendant problems such as the teacher shortage, is likely to continue for many years.”
Other than the Jetsons, what visions of robot teachers and so-called automated learning were being promised for the school of the future?
Arthur Radebaugh‘s classic futuristic comic strip “Closer Than We Think” (1958-63) looked at the idea of automation in the classroom. Movies, “mechanical tabulating machines” and teachers instructing by videophone were all envisioned for the classroom of tomorrow. Each child sits in front of a console which has a screen displaying equations, multiple colored buttons and what looks like maybe a video camera or microphone mounted on the top-center of the desk.
From the May 25, 1958 edition of “Closer Than We Think”:
Tomorrow’s schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.
But visions of automated classrooms and robot teachers weren’t exactly comforting predictions to many Americans. The idea of robot teachers in the classroom was so prevalent in the late 1950s (and so abhorrent to some) that the National Education Association had to assure Americans that new technology had the potential to improve education in the U.S., not destroy it.
In the August 24, 1960 Oakland Tribune the headline read “NEA Allays Parent Fears on Robot Teacher”:
How’d you like to have your child taught by a robot?
With the recent splurge of articles on teaching machines, computers and electronic marvels, the average mother may feel that her young child will feel more like a technician than a student this fall.
Not so, reassures the National Education Association. The NEA says it is true that teaching machines are on their way into the modern classroom and today’s youngsters will have a lot more mechanical aids than his parents.
But the emphasis will still be on aid — not primary instruction. In fact, the teaching machine is expected to make teaching more personal, rather than less.
In recent years, teachers have been working with large classes and there has been little time for individual attention. It is believed that the machines will free them from many time-consuming routine tasks and increase the hours they can spend with the pupil and his parents.
The article went on to cite a recent survey showing that there were at least 25 different teaching machines in use in classrooms around the United States. The piece also listed the numerous advantages, including instant feedback to the student about whether their answers were correct and the ability to move at one’s own pace without holding up (or feeling like you’re being held up by) the other students in a class.
The year after this episode first aired, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair featured an “automated schoolmarm” at the Hall of Education. The desks and chairs were incredibly modern in design and included plastic molded chairs, a staple of mid-1960s futurism.
From the Official Souvenir Book: “The Autotutor, a U.S. Industries teaching machine, is tried out by visitors to the Hall of Education. It can even teach workers to use other automated machines.”
The December 5, 1965 edition of Athelstan Spilhaus‘s comic strip “Our New Age,” people reading the Sunday paper learned about humans’ ability to understand faster speech. This “compressed speech” was illustrated in the last panel of the strip as something that could easily be delivered by robot teacher of the future.
“Compressed speech” will help communications: from talking with pilots to teaching reading. Future school children may hear their lessons at twice the rate and understand them better!
Fast-talking humanoid robots have yet to enter the classroom, but as I’ve said before, we have another 50 years before we reach 2063.
The Jetson family and the Flintstone family would cross paths in the 1980s but there was also a joking nod to the connection between these two families in this episode. The “billionth rerun” of “The Flintstones” is showing on Kenny Countdown’s TV-watch. “How many times have I told you, no TV in the classroom! What do you have to say for yourself?” the robot teacher asks.
In keeping with its conservative leanings, viewers in 1963 are at least assured of one thing — that it doesn’t matter how much well-meaning tech you introduce into a school, kids of the future are still going to goof off.
March 25, 2013
This is the 23rd in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 23rd episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on March 3, 1963 and was titled “Dude Planet.”
In the year 2063, the people in the Jetsons’ universe work just a few hours a day. When they’re hungry, they just push a button or two and out pops a fully-formed, nutritious meal. Trips to distant planets are commonplace for a middle class family of four. And humanoid robots see to their every earthly need.
But despite all this, the Jetsons are depressed.
Not all of the time, mind you. They have fun playing sports, watching TV, going out to eat, and enjoying a cigarette with their martinis. But no matter how good things may seem for the Jetson family, the show assures us that life in the future will still be a grind. The futuristic machine that magically makes breakfast will undoubtedly break. Your boss at the sprocket factory will still hound you for not working to his satisfaction. The rich and powerful will still use the legal system to their advantage.
What then is a 21st century human to do? How are we to cope with the overwhelming stresses of modern life in the future? We find that the answer for people like Jane Jetson is to retreat into a world of cultural nostalgia.
In the 23rd episode of “The Jetsons,” Jane isn’t feeling well. Life is a drag. Everything makes her irritable and her frustration with the repetition of life in the 21st century manifests itself in lashing out at the people she loves the most.
Jane goes to the doctor (at her husband’s insistence) and the doctor proceeds to run a bunch of tests. Jane tells the doctor about the stresses and general monotony of her life: “every day it’s the same thing, and every morning it’s the same thing,” she begins to explain in what sound like Nine Inch Nails lyrics. The doctor’s diagnosis is that she has buttonitis. “You need a rest,” the doctor tells Jane. “Get away from all those buttons.”
So Jane takes the doctor’s advice and decides to get away from it all. She visits a travel agency (remember those?) and books a trip to a dude ranch — a place where futuristic cityfolk can get away from the pressures of modern life and play cowboy.
It’s perhaps notable that Jane doesn’t visit a dude ranch on Earth. Instead, the travel agent tells her to visit the Beat Bar Ranch on the Beta III Dude Planet. “It’s like a page out of the old West,” the travel agent explains.
The fact that there’s apparently no suitable dude ranch on Earth could be a hint that Jetsonian technological development and rapid growth had long since swallowed any semblance of the rustic outdoors that Americans had known at midcentury. The postwar period of growth, with its insatiable thirst for suburban homes, new schools, bigger airports, and more highways was concerning conservationists of the early 1960s. Many believed that this growth meant that the days of outdoor recreation in America were numbered.
In 1962 (the year before this episode aired) a report was delivered to Congress and President Kennedy outlining the future of outdoor recreation in America. The report highlighted this postwar concern about how once-rural land was being allocated — with highways, schools and subdivisions on one side, and open spaces and unpolluted water on the other.
Decade by decade, the expanding population has achieved more leisure time, more money to spend, and better travel facilities; and it has sought more and better opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. But the public has also demanded more of other things. In the years following World War II, this process greatly accelerated as an eager Nation, released from wartime restrictions, needed millions of new acres for subdivisions, industrial sites, highways, schools, and airports. The resources for outdoor recreation — shoreline, green acres, open space, and unpolluted waters — diminished in the face of demands for more of everything else.
In the world of the Jetsons, outdoor recreation is relegated to distant planets. But at least this romanticized version of the “Old West” is still at your disposal.
The dude ranch is filled with people who we assume are in the same boat as Jane — mentally exhausted and feeling generally disconnected from any sense of personal fulfillment. Their quest to achieve happiness in the 21st century is thwarted by an evolving standard of comfort. Viewers of the show are warned that questions about the meaning of life and one’s self-worth hang over mid-21st century humanity just as they did in the 20th.
Jane heads to Beta Bar Ranch with her friend Helen but neither really seem to be enjoying themselves. It would seem that this escape into a world of nostalgia is no solution to their problems. They try their best to relax and take in the sights (like a cowboy doing his best to wrestle a robotic bull to the ground, and a robot cowboy emerging from a jukebox for a quick dance) but it’s no use. Jane simply misses her husband George too much. On top of that, she’s also jealous of the imaginary party he was throwing when they talked over the videophone.
Jane finds that reveling in nostalgia hasn’t helped her boredom with the tedium of life. Without saying as much, we assume that she resolves to simply put up with the more depressing aspects of life in the future. Happiness is at home, even when it’s not.
Today we often romanticize the past in similar ways as Jane. However, having a lot of money obviously helps one realize her dreams in playing Old West. Billionaire Bill Koch (the lesser known of the three brothers Koch) is currently building his own 50-building old west town on his 420 acre ranch in Colorado, complete with a 22,000 square foot mansion. The town will house Koch’s collection of Old West memorabilia, including a gun owned by Jesse James, Sitting Bull’s rifle, and a photograph of Billy the Kidd that he bought at auction for $2.3 million in 2011.
But 50 years hence it’s unlikely that any real-life Jane Jetsons will be able to get away from it all at Koch’s version of the Old West. Koch has said that he has no plans to make any of it open to the public.