Friday, December 21, 2012

1939 by David Gelernter

I’ve been time traveling.  I went back to visit the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.  I tagged along with a couple of locals, both to New York and 1939, Mark and Hattie.  I was looking forward to it because, like me, Mark studied engineering and is attending the fair for the first time.  I wondered how he might react to the visions of future technology on display, like the superhighways anticipated by Democracity and the Futurama (which I read about in The Big Roads by Earls Swift).  I grew up in an era of Interstates, commuting, and electrified kitchens, so the even the visions of the future on display at the fair are the past to me.

I also time traveled to 1995 to take a look back at the fair with Hattie.  I was reintroduced to her by a computer science professor.  (The professor was David Gelernter.  This is a review of his book, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair.)  Back then I was starting my career in Kansas City, so I didn’t worried about running into myself in New York.

I was fascinated by what I saw of the fair.  These people had a vision of the future.  It might seem modest to us, but it was big to them.  They dreamed of the good life in which many more people owned homes in pleasant suburbs, drove to work in their own cars on broad roads, had enough to eat, and were relieved from drudgery by electric appliances.  Within a generation, in spite of the difficulties of a major war, they largely brought their dream into reality, and we have fitfully enjoyed the results.

Gelernter compares the fairgoers to Moses looking into the Promised Land (an apropos analogy considering he also writes about what it was like to be Jewish in America at the time).  Their vision of a land of milk and honey is very much the time we live in.

This leads to one of the many points of comparison Gelernter draws between that generation and ours.  They had drive, even a kind of joy, because they had a goal toward which to strive.  The cultural angst that began to show in the 1960s is in part a sign that we had arrived.  Our goals were achieved and we hand no reason to strive, so we lost our way.  We perish for lack of vision.

I find Gelernter to be a pretty good critic of technology.  You might expect a computer science professor to be enthusiastic about the changes computers have wrought.  He is more impressed with the improvements made by that older generation.  He looks at roads and refrigeration and the host of other mid- to late-Twentieth Century technologies and sees that they made improvements to human health and happiness.  The differences made by computers pale in comparison. I can remember that in 1995, I could cut up documents with a pair of scissor, tape pieces of them together, mark the mess up by hand and give it to a person in the office we called a clerk.  A short time later, the clerk would bring me back a freshly-printed, neat document, a final version of what was represented by my taped-together prototype.  The clerk would even do a little copy editing.  When a computer can do that, I’ll be impressed.  In other words, I think Gelernter’s critique holds water even 17 years later.

Gelernter may be glad that I got the sense of time travel for which he was going.  He might be disappointed that I didn’t like Mark and Hattie much.  I slipped away from them as much as I felt I safely could.  I wanted to see the fair, and though it may seem hardhearted, I had little interest in the ups and downs of their romance or their fretfulness over the war in Europe.  I think someone could write a good novel about this couple and how the day they got engaged at the fair became a touchstone for Hattie even decades later.  If I had expected a novel, I might have liked these characters, but I was expecting a history, and I found them distracting.

Gelernter, David.  1939: The Lost World of the Fair.  New York: Free Press, 1995.