Jewish World Review August 6, 2001 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5761

Ian Shoales

Ian Shoales
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Consumer Reports

That Big Clock -- EVEN in the new glum America, shiny objects still pop into being; fantastic contents of a time capsule from a bright useless future shimmer into the present. There's an atomic clock, accurate to the second for the next 1.6 million years, yours from Hewlett-Packard for 54,000 dollars. And the friendly engineers at AT & T did finally create the videophone.

Big deal, I say. A chronometer can bombard cesium atoms with microwaves til hell freezes over (or 1.6 million years, whichever comes first), but it still won't get Mr. and Ms. America to the office on time. Even if they buy one at a discount (35 grand, say), there will come a morning when sleep is dearer than accuracy, a groggy hand will reach clumsily for the snooze bar, and boom-- 35 grand in pieces on the floor.

And a videophone just means you have to shave every time the phone rings. Who needs that? I can see the potential for 3-D dating services but if you're going to get that interactive, why not get a life while you're at it? Ask for a real date. If he or she balks at the prospect of actual face-to-face interpersonality (to use a noun from the future), tell your date about this really great clock you just bought. You've set it up in a special room, under soft halogen lights. Schedule a viewing, over candlelight holograms and atomburgers, bombarded to microwave perfection.

Use your imagination! Time is just a fiction anyway, invented to divvy up the duration between dark and light, to break up our days into work and leisure hours. Time exists to give our lives the illusion of coherence, and the convenience to enjoy fine products like obscenely accurate clocks and telephones that won't stop staring at you.

We always want tomorrow's gadgets today. What we don't realize is that the gizmos of tomorrow actually come from our collective yesterdays. To prove that point, let's turn back the clock, and stroll down memory lane, to my personal past, bright with the hues of denial's paint box.

I recall a wide green boulevard where excellent lawns, interrupted by milky houses and twisted elms, fanned away into a blue distance, in a silence broken only by the faint buzz of non-digital Lawn-Boys, the analog whir of push mower blades, and the swish of cut grass as it sprayed up in a fragrant hot cascade, ripe with chlorophyll and gasoline.

As I breezed by the rows of homes on my Japanese Schwinn knock-off, carefully tossing newspapers into the purple lilacs, I could see the interior of my neighbor's garage, mouth open on the bright world. I caught a blurry glimpse of an ivory pegboard on the far wall, with red silhouettes, like the chalk outlines that mark a homicide, of wrenches, hammers, handsaws.

I saw a man in gray Sears workclothes, snicking a tape measure from its silver housing, measuring lengths of blond wood. A puff of smoke from his pipe made a small cloud in the air, like a thought balloon in a comic strip, a blank slate on which to project his homely vision of the World of Tomorrow.

On the side walls, in front of shiny beige contact paper, liberally peppered with brown ducks, on sturdy handmade bookshelves, stood a lifetime's worth of Popular Mechanics. It is there, in those pages, that we will find the source of every dream of the future: a handyman's future where 'lectromobiles slide into grooves on the highway, like a hobbyist's slot car, and drive themselves with the push of three chrome buttons (On! Destination! Off!), while Mom, Dad, and the kids play parcheesi in the spacious red vinyl interior, protected from the elements by a polarized sunroof.

Yes, our gleaming future is stuck forever in a misty past. The future was just a foolish dream, where customized robots made every surface dust-free, where sonic waves shouted filth from miracle fabrics. It was going to be atomburgers, atomburgers, every perfect night, atomburgers. But it never happened, did it? Past, present, and future have blended into what the imagineers of Disneyworld choose to call streetmosphere. The world has become a real nice place to spend money, but I wouldn't want to live there. Perhaps it's best to forget the future, unplug the videophone, throw the atomic clocks out the window, and sit in the darkness, brooding morbidly on the past. At least there we know what's going on. The past runs like clockwork. And it never loses a second, ever.

JWR contributor Ian Shoales is the author of, among others, Not Wet Yet: An Anthology of Commentary. Comment by clicking here.


08/02/01: Stop the pop!
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07/26/01: The Bride of Science
07/23/01: That java jive
07/17/01: Homogenized hegemony
07/13/01: Applying Newton's First Law of Physics to textbooks
07/10/01: The dumb and the dead

© 2001, Ian Shoales