Saturday, June 9, 2012

Reaching Back for Century 21

Traces of that retro-'60s style can still be found here and there, if you know where to look. Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle and site of the Century 21 Exposition, the 1962 World's Fair, is a good place to start. Until October it's the home base of Next Fifty, marking the fiftieth anniversary of Seattle's fair and looking toward the future in much the same way they did in those bright-eyed days just before the Cuban Missile Crisis - an era so innocent that the fair's midway was called the "Gayway."

At least, that's the impression it's easy to pick up from the documentary evidence; the sort of things that don't draw attention to how unpleasant it was to be gay, or a minority, or a woman, or in any way not hewing to the orthodox heterosexual white male norm of 1962. Sometimes that sort of thing comes through unintentionally, like the unbelievably goddamn racist "Chief Screaming Chicken" on the 1960s Batman series. The culture of the early 1960s is not something to be defended. The style, on the other hand, the manner it presented itself and the way it looked at the world - even today, those are infectious. Looking over the anniversary displays on the Space Needle's observation level and in the temporary museum by the fountain, I felt twinges of emotion, of longing. Longing for a piece of the future world that they were so sure was coming, a future world that had dodged its Cold War bullets and, through the power of progress, would become peaceful, grander, richer, wiser... better than the one that had come before.

It's not a regret for scientific advances that didn't come, that the look of our present doesn't accord with their future. That's just semantics. When it comes to forecasting like that, it frequently ends up that things are either realized in forms other than the ones that were expected, or turned out to be too expensive or valueless to expend effort on - the Century 21 Exposition did not, I imagine, see the globally networked, always-on communications of our actual 21st century coming; likewise the sort of problems we face today.

It's exactly those problems which fuels that longing.

The Space Needle is one of the most enduring reminders of that retro '60s style.

In 1962, people wanted to believe that the future was bright and wide-open. The Second World War had, after all, ended only seventeen years before - closer than the end of the Cold War is to us. Fifty years later, well... I don't exactly need shades, you know? The whole "welcome to the future" optimism that accompanied the turning of the millennium was dealt a rather thorough body blow by the collapse of the dot-com economy, the war on terror, and the ongoing global financial crisis. In 2012, no matter where you look it seems like things are getting worse, and the road ahead is pitch black.

Granted, issues like "is the euro going to fail" pale in comparison to "are they going to push the button" - nevertheless... it's easy to know what would happen in the latter case. One of the things that make modern problems difficult to tackle is that we don't know how the dice will fall; not only that, but there are plenty of people who have an interest in making sure they fall a specific way. Not at all like the threat of a nuclear exchange, where actually causing the Third World War would not have been in anyone's best interest.

Besides that, I think one source of this longing could be for a sense of nostalgia for those times - but only in the context of imagining a time when our options hadn't narrowed quite so much. You can see it in the United States, with the Republican Party digging in its heels; in Canada, with Stephen Harper's Conservatives taking actions that would never have been seriously considered twenty years ago - it seems like in the absence of a great external enemy to focus our attentions against, the battle lines have been drawn within our own societies and that we're riding a runaway freight train to the future.

But there's only that road ahead, no matter how narrow it may be.

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