Wednesday, June 10, 2009

(Dark) Magic Highway U.S.A.

More personal disclosure time: the sort of thing I wrote about on Monday most definitely leads to me taking a jaundiced view of what I'm writing about today.

Back in 2007, a colorful piece of Disney futurism called Magic Highway U.S.A. made its way across the internet. First broadcast in 1958 as part of the Disneyland series, it looked forward from a time where the Interstate Highway System was just beginning to transform the way Americans travelled to a perfect retrofuture where the roads were wide, journeys swift and the automobile king.

A good way to gain insight to a specific point in history is to look at its futurism, its science fiction. Nineteenth-century Britain's preoccupation with a rival European power found expression in invasion literature such as 1871's The Battle of Dorking, and a century later Japan's seemingly invincible economy saw science-fictional works predicated around the United States eclipsed by the Rising Sun.

In the 1950s, everything was swell, so long as you weren't black, a woman, an atheist, a communist, a beatnik, or any kind of minority, and were American. The Second World War was over and America was stronger than ever, ready and able to spread freedom, democracy, and Mom's apple pie to every part of the world, thanks to the twin fists of Prosperity and Science. Magic Highway U.S.A. reflects that postwar optimism and forecasts a world in which great highways "link together all nations, and help create a better understanding among the peoples of the world... and a better way of life for the future."

In this Magic Highway U.S.A. reflects the boundless, triumphal optimism of a country that had not yet learned to fear the Soviet nuclear threat, and had not been humbled by Vietnam. The highways would be laid down, the people would be free to drive where they pleased, and everything would be awesome.

Another truth about science fiction is that one can learn nearly as much from what isn't said as what is. Take a look at it yourself, if you haven't; I've found it here on YouTube, but there's no telling if this is authorized by Disney, and so I offer no guarantees as to whether this video is actually live as you read this. If so, you're missing out - but I do have a couple of stills from the movie below, as well.

Magic Highway U.S.A. stresses scale. Bigness! The highways themselves are massive, the network is massive, and the machines that build it are massive, from mobile bridgebuilders to the monstrous roadbuilder, which devours the land with a toothy maw and lays down road like some tremendous steel behemoth. It's suggested with such casual flippancy that I somehow doubt there was much in the way of an environmental impact assessment before it rumbled through. What we don't see are the prefabricated suburbs being flown in from roaring factories, slung below a fleet of carrier helicopters each with blades the breadth of a football stadium, but that would hardly be out of place in Magic Highway U.S.A.'s vision of the future.

"In one sweep, a giant roadbuilder changes rough ground into a wide, finished highway."

The film's vision of a country "[decentralized]... into vast urban areas" is a simple extension of the suburban impulse which was, in 1958, still in its infancy. Our perspective changes from a tightly-packed labyrinth of buildings without a scrap of ground or grass visible, to a few stands of towers that stretch toward the horizon, linked together by wide roads almost free of traffic and standing largely separate from one another.

They tried that once in North York, by the by, with a new model suburb based around tall residential towers isolated from each other by wide-open areas. Today it's called Jane and Finch and has some of the highest crime and poverty rates in the city. I'm not saying that correlation equals causation here, but for me it's hardly a stellar advertisement for the concept.

These "urban areas" look far less like cities than they do farmers' fields that yielded a bumper crop of skyscrapers. The only allowance for pedestrian travel we're shown is in a shopping center, where "moving sidewalks make window shopping effortless," and "escalator ramps carry office workers from level to level."

At no point in Magic Highway U.S.A. is anything non-mechanical ever depicted as moving. Motor cars and moving sidewalks are the arteries of this world of statues. Nor does it acknowledge that anyone gets around by any method other than a car; obviously, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy was only the beginning in this future. Even freight trains have been replaced by "truck trains," which "combine railroad volume with highway flexibility."

Environmental consequences? What environmental consequences? For that matter, what environment? The use of cantilevered skyways above the sort of desert where Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner dueled is framed as preserving "the beauty and grandeur of mountain travel," not the beauty and grandeur of nature itself. While I'll admit that highway networks do go a long way to bind together peoples and countries, they're hardly the unalloyed good that Magic Highway U.S.A. represents - at the least, with present methods, they encourage negative impacts such as carbon pollution. In this future, they certainly don't have a problem with building highways straight through equatorial rain forests.

To be fair, Magic Highway U.S.A. doesn't assume that the internal combustion engine will reign supreme forever, and this is one point where I wish it had hit the mark. It posits automobiles switching first to jets, then to nuclear power, and finally "the sun-powered electro-suspension car, which needs no wheels."

Yes, of course! All we have to do in order to have Hover-Boards is to make sure they're solar-powered! Mattel's only got six years; they'd better get cracking!

"These spectacular conceptions will lead to new dimensions for the American highway." And, one would hope, perfectly reliable cars...

At the time it was made, Magic Highway U.S.A. was earnestly showing a world that was supposed to be pleasant and full of promise, a utopia that we could all look forward to. Fifty-one years later, it looks to me more like a roadmap to social breakdown. Not only does its world of the future encourage sprawl and dependency, it practically makes them mandatory. It is so married to the concept of the personal automobile that there is no allowance at all for their absence. In this world of the future, people would probably think they were better off dead than have their driver's license revoked. Personally, I can only be thankful that the techno-utopian excesses of Magic Highway U.S.A. did not come true.

The most outlandish prediction, though? "America will one day be criss-crossed by a network of super-speed transcontinental motorways." Oh, the things they believed back then...

just because I'm behind the curve doesn't mean I don't care

1 comment:

  1. What liberal ASS HOLE you are !! Enjoy the Magic Highway for what it was. Why don't you take that chip off your shoulder and enjoy life.