Everybody has heard the parable of the frog in hot water. Supposedly, if you toss a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will feel pain and jump out. However, the story goes, if you put a frog in cold water and slowly raise the temperature, it will continually acclimate itself and not realize that the water has become dangerous until it is too late. A real frog would probably notice the increasing temperature and leave the pot before being scalded to death, but human beings often lack that sort of foresight.
Consider the changes that we have experienced in the United States of America over the past century. If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1920 and awoke today, the world would be nearly unrecognizable. Technology has changed, for sure, but even greater changes have happened at the cultural level. Society’s views on marriage, family, religion, immigration, foreign policy, the value of work, and basic decorum has undergone tremendous shifts over the last hundred years. Sometimes public opinion and morality evolves naturally, but sometimes it is pushed with purpose. Consider that just twelve years ago a large majority of Americans were against gay marriage, so much so that even the Democratic primary candidates all agreed that marriage should remain between a man and a woman. This was followed by a massive propaganda barrage coming out of politics, media, entertainment, and academia, to the point where a majority of Americans today support so-called gay marriage.
We, the frogs in the pot of water, often do not notice these changes, or the speed at which they take place. We are distracted by our daily lives, the tremendous amount of entertainment options before us, and the minutiae of day-to-day politics. Sometimes it is helpful to step back and see exactly how much has changed, to compare today with a picture of yesterday. Only by being honest with ourselves about the state of our culture can we seriously prepare to restore it. Come with me on a journey back in time:
Imagine for that it is the year 1955. You are a young family man, a veteran of World War II, living a quiet and happy life. Television is just entering the zeitgeist, and you are considering purchasing a set for your family. You sometimes worry about nuclear war, considering the Soviet Union is testing their own atom bombs, but that is a distant care. You go to work each morning in a factory putting bolts on car frames, then you come home to your modest suburban house and spend the evening with your wife and three children. On Saturdays you mow the lawn, repair minor household issues, and play with the children On Sundays you take the family to the local Methodist church and spend the afternoon with friends and family. Life is good.
Science fiction books and movies have really become popular lately, and you cannot get enough of them. You fondly remember seeing War of the Worlds in the theater just a couple of years ago, and The Day the Earth Stood Still before that. You have a stack of books by Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein that you read before bed each night. The future looks amazing – in just a few years, humans will surely discover space travel, computers, new medicines, and by the end of the century they would no doubt be colonizing other worlds. Human potential seems limitless.
Some of the books you have recently read suggest a more depressing future, however. Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” was just published a few months ago, telling the story of a sole survivor of a global pandemic. Reading that had left you shaken. You wonder… what if things go wrong? What if technology proves too powerful for mankind to control? What if the old human vices of greed, anger, and envy override our desire for a better world, and plunge us back into another genocidal war? What if a new disease destroys 90% of the population? What if a totalitarian government comes to power and uses modern technology to oppress their people? What if the good times are just a temporary aberration in the long human history of poverty and conflict? It seems far-fetched, no?
Imagine you pick up a new science fiction book written by a famous author. This book takes place 65 years in the future. In this telling, mankind has not yet colonized the stars; rather we turned our attention toward making life as convenient and comfortable as possible for the people of earth. Technology in this book is amazing – men, women, and children all have handheld devices that connect them to a global information net, allowing them to instantly recall any piece of data, from song lyrics, to historical pictures, and even to live video of events happening on the other side of the world. Cars are sleek and fast, with computer-controlled autopilots and satellite-assisted navigation. Washing machines, refrigerators, coffee makers, thermostats, and doorbells all connect to the worldwide info net to operate as automatically as possible. People can order any product that is manufactured anywhere on earth and have it dropped on their doorstep the next day. You think about the vacuum cleaner that you just bought for your wife last Christmas. In the novel, those have gone out of style and now everyone owns a robot that cleans the floors all by itself during the night.
Work has become simpler in the future. As you crack your knuckles, sore and raw from turning wrenches all day, you read about how most Americans work behind desks now, or even from the comfort of their own home. The info net makes it so a man can earn a living from anywhere, carrying an impossibly tiny computer screen with him wherever he goes. Many Americans do hardly any work at all. Some go to school for years upon years, others do odd jobs as taxi drivers or food couriers, and some are just paid by the government simply for existing. You wonder how such a culture could come about – after all, none of the other men you know would be shameless enough to give up working for a living.
As you continue reading this story, you are struck by how soulless this future world has become. The government requires everyone to wear face masks, even in the privacy of their own homes. They say it is to protect people from a deadly virus that is sweeping the globe, but some characters wonder if this is actually true. The author himself does not seem to come down on any solid position. Yet most people dutifully follow the rules, making grocery stores look like hospital wards. Everywhere they turn, characters are reminded to maintain a certain distance between themselves and others. The result is a sterile public square, where you are unable to see facial expressions, and people fearfully keep their distance lest they catch the virus, or worse, be admonished by government agents and shamed by millions of people watching live video. This sterile, antiseptic world feels like the far future of Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” where humanity has made enormous technological advances but lost any reason for living. You suddenly feel a new appreciation for the warm social interactions that make up your day – the firm handshake of the pastor at church, the smile on the faces of children you pass in the street, the hugs from family members visiting from afar. We would never allow things to go that far, you think.
You remember feeling unnerved by the idea of the ubiquitous Thought Police after reading Orwell’s “1984” a while back. This novel seems to have the same idea, without the catchy name. People are told to watch what they say, not only in person or in print but also in the millions of messages that are passed back and forth across the info net. Saying the wrong thing can get one banned from the net or even fired from his job. Huge corporations maintain an ever-shifting list of thoughts that are considered wrong, and if you are found to have ever had one of these wrong thoughts you are blacklisted from society. The net remembers things you said years or even decades ago, and specially trained informants will often dig through your history to find something incriminating. This leads people to guard their thoughts carefully, and it is often difficult to determine what someone genuinely believes. For many people, socially approved slogans have completely replaced independent thought, and breaking this conditioning is nearly impossible. Public discourse has been reduced to discussions about television shows and sports games, while any subject of value has been made off-limits.
The family is unrecognizable as well. You look around at your household – you, the husband and father, are the breadwinner, while your wife keeps the home, raises the children, and takes part in social events in the community. Your three children attend a good school where they learn science, math, history, and grammar. Yet the hypothetical future you are reading about has discarded that structure, calling it backwards, racist, sexist, and wrong. Men and women both go to work, often leaving their children with a nanny or in a centralized care center run by other women. Few men and women even bother getting married anymore, rather they have sexual relations with whomever they please, and sometimes live together before separating. The few who still live in the traditional manner are sneered at as backwards and prudish. Children now grow up in families of two mothers, or two fathers, or even three or more people. They often have numerous half-siblings, or sometimes no siblings, as many parents specifically want only one child. Children are taught that sex is just a social construct, and that if they want, they can take drugs or have surgery to change themselves into the opposite sex, or something in between. Parents have little control over what their children are taught, sending them to schools that force this new and modern worldview on them starting at age five. You shudder at the thought of your children’s school turning into the nightmarish propaganda machines that you are reading about. Thankfully, it seems impossible that such a world could ever come to be.
News media is unreliable in this future world. According to the author, the United States triumphed in the Cold War without resorting to nuclear annihilation, yet American journalism became its own version of the Soviet Pravda, where the only way people knew something was true was when news media officially denied it. Citizens instinctively distrust the news, and they only read and listen to stories that support their existing biases. There are hundreds or even thousands of channels on the info net delivering news and entertainment, but the line between those two things is blurred. You would think that in a future where everyone has the ability to record and to watch live video at any given moment that the truth would be easy to discern, but the opposite is true: media spends much of their time telling you not believe what you just saw.
You are confused about a few things. The author said in the introduction that America won the Cold War in this timeline, yet there are outspoken politicians in America pushing for socialism. The author said that black people gained equal civil rights in the 1960s, yet racial strife seems to be a driving factor in for future strife. Future citizens have instantaneous access to the sum of all human knowledge, yet the process of learning, philosophy, and science has degenerated into name calling, accusations of excess privilege, and endless deconstruction. None of this makes any sense.
The streets are not safe in this future world either. Big cities, which in your own time are places full of wonder, demonstrating the heights of human architectural ingenuity, are now broken down, dirty, strewn with trash and feces and leftover hypodermic needles. At night, roving bands of angry young people come out and burn down buildings and fight with police officers, who seem powerless to stop them. Sometimes a character in the story makes a wrong turn while driving through the city at night and finds his car surrounded by these feral youths, who surround him, hit his vehicle with rocks and clubs, and demand he stop and allow them to beat and rob him. Panic runs through his body, and he wants to floor the gas and escape, but he remembers the story of the last man who did that – he went to prison for life. Where are the police to keep order, you wonder? Where is the government?
Government in this world is entirely broken. You think of your own government – President Eisenhower is a calm and fatherly influence on the country, and despite being of the opposite party, Senator Johnson and Speaker Rayburn work together with the president to maintain peace and prosperity. Despite their disagreements, Congress is full of serious adults. Not so in the novel you are reading. Politicians are childish and vain, going on the info net and calling each other infantile names and using gross profanity and vulgarity. Politicians abuse their authority to investigate and undermine their opponents rather than engaging in serious debate. Politics in the future is full of hatred and violence, and it feels like open warfare is primed to break out at any moment. You are almost afraid to turn the page. Is the author already planning a sequel where America is plunged into a second civil war?
You think about how far humanity has come in your own lifetime. You remember growing up in the Depression – times were hard, but families stuck together and helped each other, and they made it through okay. You remember marching through France in 1945, seeing the depths of human depravity in war and even genocide. That was behind you now, and both you and the world were recovering from the experience. Why would anyone choose to go backwards, to return to a time of violence, of wanton destruction? Why would anyone want to read about such a depressing future?
You have had enough. You close the book and toss it in the trash can. None of the conveniences of life promised by this vision of the future are worth the soullessness and social destruction that has been wrought upon the country you love. Why bother reading this garbage when all it will do is depress you? You look out your bedroom window, feeling wistful. The last hints of sunset are fading on the horizon, and the stars are beginning to appear in the sky. You can still hear children playing in the summer twilight, children without a care in the world. It is 1955, and America’s best days are ahead of her. She has conquered tyranny, created unlimited prosperity, and there is nowhere to go but up.
Now, return to the present day. Take a look around. Check the headlines. Take a walk to the grocery store and look at the faces of the shoppers. Drive through downtown Portland, Detroit, or San Francisco – if you dare. Do not bother asking if such a situation can happen here – it already did. What would have been a dystopian horror in 1955 is our reality today. Consider the world that we have lost; the world that was taken from us. Consider how we can build that world again.