Our literature and cinema endlessly imagine the future. It's always dystopic. No one dares imagine utopia but the editorial page, whose prescription is to heed the wisdom of the publisher.
I used to believe we anticipate the worst to avoid the worst. Since the most terrible things that happen are too terrible to imagine, we imagine them to head them off. But it's not that simple.
A few days ago some old high school classmates of mine went off on a jag of giddy reminiscence. I'm not sure what got into our prune juice, but for days nostalgia ruled. Who was that hanging from Mrs. Ozark's window sill in junior high? Who set that fire in the sewer system? What were the rules of girls' basketball again, and why wasn’t anyone allowed to see the games?
The e-mails flew fast and furious. "Half the team stayed on one half of the court and passed the ball across the center line to the other half," one of the basketball girls recalled. "To play full court (running from one end to the other) was too strenuous for young women. Also, we could only dribble the ball twice."
They played their games in empty gyms because they played in shorts, and their legs were no one's business. The cheerleaders turning cartwheels at the boys' games had to wear slacks. So I was a little surprised when my favorite cheerleader proclaimed, "We were totally born at the right time!" Having watched my own daughters grow up in a different world, I would say she was born 30 or 40 years too soon. But she meant it.
And what's wrong when someone of a certain age feels grateful to be a product of the times she happened to live in? It's mentally healthy. As the world makes improvements that will delight generations yet unborn, it estranges the generations already here. Why should we favor the era turning its back us?
Judith Shulevitz, science editor of the New Republic, just published a wise article of the beware of what you wish for variety. Her subject was cryogenic preservation. It's probably going to be possible to do it, she told us, but do we really want to?
"Life is about more than sheer physical or even mental existence. It's also about having adequate relationships and living in a tolerable society. If you are revived after, say, 100 years, your new life will in no way resemble your old one. You may find yourself in a glorious utopia or a world of trouble, but existence as you knew it will have been irrevocably discontinued. And unless key members of your social circle froze themselves with you, you’re going to be very lonely."
Shulevitz was describing the personal dystopia that is the fate of everyone who wanders too far into the future. In 100 years, language will be riddled with idioms we don't know, constructions we'll manhandle, taboos we'll violate. Everything we say will be a little off. To our despair we'll discover that the glue of society is common cultural memory—and that we share none of it. We'll be the stranger at the cocktail party who can't break into the conversation.
A dynamic society like the one we live in is constantly shedding its skin, and we're the skin. We're born into a little bubble of time and we die in it, and if we're sound of mind we tell ourselves it was the best bubble ever.
We're dystopic because it's painful to leave a party that's just getting started, and the best possible way to handle the situation is to believe that ten minutes later the cops are going to raid the place and arrest everyone on the premises.
Believing in dystopia is like believing in heaven—it's a comfort. It makes it a lot easier to remember the good old days, which, between us, I don't think anyone enjoyed quite that much at the time. I didn't.