Monday, January 8, 2001

Week of 01/08/2001

It’s 2001… Where Are You HAL?
- by David Matthews 2

Okay, so here it is, 2001. We’ve talked about it, we’ve speculated about it, we’ve fantasized about what it would be like.. and now it’s here.

I thought maybe I would take a little trip. How about the moon? I’m told there are wonderful resorts up there. I’ll just ask my HAL 9000 computer to make all the arrangements, then get in my hover car and jet on over to the spaceport, where I’ll be taking the next Pan-Global space shuttle. I’m sure there will be some attractive young stewardess in stark white unisex uniforms who will provide me trays of liquid food for the journey as I watch them walk about in zero gravity in their magnetic sneakers.

Oh.. wait a minute.. I can’t do all that stuff.. can I?

We haven’t had a man on the moon in about thirty years. We’ve only now got a permanent space station in orbit over the Earth, and that’s still under construction. While space shuttles seem to be taking off and landing more and more frequently now, there’s still only one shuttle in space at a time, and that’s mostly for the US government.

And forget Pan-Global.. there isn’t even a Pan-Am anymore! Although given the problem with airlines today, I’m sure there are plenty of people who miss having Pan-Am as an option. Cripes, there are so many scheduled flights that are being cancelled that you would have a better chance of attending a Smashing Pumpkins concert than you do of flying the not-so-friendly skies.

Speaking of flying, I’m sure I speak on behalf of the millions of commuters that crowd our roads twice a day when I say that we WISH we had hover cars to get around in! In addition to cars that drive faster and cause more accidents, we now have these urban tanks called Sport Utility Vehicles that chug more fuel than fratboys at an all-you-can-drink beer blast. Add to that the number of people who are driving these monstrosities who are talking on the cell phone, and it looks more like Death Race 2000.

Then there is HAL, or the lack thereof. Computers have gotten smaller, smarter, and more efficient than those days of punch cards and magnetic tape. The computers of today can hold more information, process data much faster, and can do some automatic functions for us. But a true artificially intelligent computer is still a long ways away from becoming a reality, never mind one that could become schizophrenic and kill people.

Come to think of it, aside from all of the technological knickknacks, there is very little that has changed amongst us as a society over the past thirty years. We still have a great mistrust in government, our leaders are still trying to push their "Great Society" agendas, our government is still waging an unpopular war (namely the so-called "War On Drugs"), we’re still sending soldiers to foreign lands to get killed, and we are still trying to fight our way from the outdated sexual attitudes and equally outdated racial attitudes. Heck, I just saw some tie-dyed T-shirts for sale at the local mall! Lava lamps and chemical euphoria are still the rave. Yesterday’s LSD is today’s Ecstasy.

So what happened to that futuristic world that we kept on reading about? Where is HAL, and SAL, and the Discovery, and lunar colonies, and those stewardesses in zero-G?

Well let’s get brutally honest here… we did a great job with the personal creature comforts, but beyond that, we pretty much dropped the ball on progress.

Science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the whole "2001" saga, speculated that we would keep going into space and put up space stations and colonies on the moon because that’s the way we were headed in that time. We went to the moon, and we all cheered and had big dreams. And then we got bored waiting for the next big thing. And when we got bored, our politicians did what came naturally to them.. namely they took the money that was being spent towards space and put it towards their own pet programs.

The space shuttles finally came about, and we once again had dreams of going into space. But then the Challenger explosion reminded us all once again that going into space involved risk, and we got scared. We lost our vision.

So when NASA decided to scale back their missions, nobody complained. Nobody complained when we decided to no longer look towards going back to the moon to stay. Nobody complained when we decided that our permanent space station would be nothing more than an oversized cosmic peephole instead of the threshold to the final frontier. We didn’t complain because we no longer saw ourselves going to space. It’s too scary out there. People might die.

We saw other problems as unsolvable. We saw the solution to discrimination as more discrimination. We saw the solution to big government by bringing in even more big government. We thought the Cold War was over simply because the Soviet Union was no more, yet the countries that made up that Eastern Empire still have weapons of mass destruction pointed at us, and we still have our own weapons pointed at them. Yesterday’s Breshnev is today’s Putnin.

We don’t like being the world’s policemen, yet that’s what we eventually do anyways. We send our soldiers to foreign lands, where they become targets to any terrorist sect with a grudge, and then we ask why can’t we police these countries.

We hate the laws that are passed, yet we don’t do anything about it come election time. Either we don’t vote, or we vote for the same people who passed those bad laws instead of voting for someone who would do something about that. We simply shrug and tell ourselves that we can’t fight city hall, when in fact most of us haven’t even raised a finger against the system.

If anything, we’ve gotten worse over the past thirty years. At least in the late 1960’s there were people struggling for a cause. Today we struggle for maintaining preferential treatment. In the late 60’s, people were willing to go to prison, and endure beatings by police officers and being sprayed with fire hoses for their causes. Today all we do is make harsh words and grumble and complain, but we eventually become complacent. Anything as long as we get our creature comforts.

The real magic of science fiction is that it inspires us. It inspires us to look beyond today and see beyond today’s limitations. The future worlds created by men like Clarke are more than just a collection of fancy creature comforts, but worlds that don’t have any of the problems of today. They give us a goal, but it is up to us to get there.

Maybe we need to look at those old science fiction movies and books that said what the future we call today would be like. Maybe we need to revisit the works of authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen King and Ray Bradbury to see just where we went wrong, and to remind us that we could be much better than we are today.

The dreams of a better future are still there, buried amidst all of the chaos of the present. TRUE leaders, true people of vision, are the ones who nurture those dreams, and work to help people make those dreams real.

Don’t worry. Someday we’ll invent HAL, and SAL, and the Discovery. We’ll go back to the moon, not just to visit, but to put up homes and try to live there permanently. We will have that future we so promised ourselves in the past…

But first, we have to get past today.

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