by Arnold Zar-Kessler, Head of School
Indeed, I can recall growing up with much more frequent speculation of “the promise of what tomorrow holds.” There’s plenty of evidence beyond my (untrustworthy) memory. Whether its Disney’s Tomorrowland,” popular “future studies” courses at high schools and colleges or the rich literary history, from H.G. Wells, to Isaac Asimov, the future was a hotter topic than it is now (save an outlier, like the currently best-selling novel, Cloud Atlas). Further, the future was imagined as something full of wonder, with all sorts of new things that would make our lives better and more interesting. Recent visions of the future in the popular mind all seem replete with dysfunction, from Mad Max movies, to Children of Men and so on. In sum, in the past, the future used to be more hopeful. Or maybe it was that we were more hopeful about the future.
Recently I had a chance to test out some of these assessments at a marvelous exhibit, Designing Tomorrow, devoted to the world’s fairs of the 1930s, at the Museum of the City of New York. During the Great Depression, just when the future seemed so bleak, nearly 100 million Americans (when the total U.S. population was around 130 million) visited World’s Fairs in Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, San Francisco and New York. These fairs took the nation by storm, firing the imagination of countless ordinary Americans, including those who saw the world’s fair newsreels in local movie houses (the New York World’s Fair alone generated 236 newsreels that reached an estimated 220 million people), read stories about the world’s fairs in local newspapers, participated in world’s fair contests and reveled in live radio broadcasts from the expositions. These Depression-era world’s fairs became cultural icons for the nation’s hopes and future.
All of these fairs embodied a vision of the future, and that vision excited the public. From the despair of the Depression, visitors could see a new, modern age, in which things would be different. Indeed, those differences became predictors of what the second half of the 20th century (and the start of the 21st century – would bring. Having the unique perspective of growing up almost in the shadow of these fairs, it’s possible to look at what we thought the future might hold, and to what degree these visions of the future have been realized, or not. In large part, the predictions made at these fairs (and in our imaginations of the decades that followed) were largely correct.
Some of these predictions have, indeed, already occurred. The “kitchens of tomorrow” featured at the fairs have reduced the time we spend washing dishes (something magical in the 1930s). Air travel is common, and we’ve sent a man to the moon. While the specifics of personal computers weren’t envisioned, the idea of the ubiquity of computers has come to pass.
Some of the ideas featured in the world’s fairs and beyond are still likely on their way to becoming realities. Most notably, the idea of a driver-less car has been around for decades, and only now is seriously being considered for test marketing.
Finally, some of that which was imagined 80 years ago simply hasn’t happened. In particular, we are not working less, we don’t find ourselves more relaxed and leisure time doesn’t feel nearly as leisurely 21st century life was characterized way back then. The idea was that machines would relieve of us drudgery, and as a result, we’d have less work to do. There was even concern that we’d get bored with so much time on our hands.
From the exhibit, the literature on the fairs and my recollection of mid-century America and beyond, there is at least one aspect of contemporary life that simply wasn’t anticipated: big data. The idea that there would be mountains of information available and devices to “mine” that data for applications in marketing, health care and even baseball statistics, and that this innovation would change the everyday lives of people, was beyond anyone’s imagination. Electric dishwashers were supposed to be the disruptive innovation, but the idea that CVS would know far more about me than I could ever imagine, or that my genetic code could be analyzed and compared to huge populations of Ashkenazi Jews, or that “behavioral health” would influence the way the hardware store clerk chooses his diet all were more science fiction than Buck Rogers (he was sort of a Luke Skywalker, or a Ninjago).
It’s big data that now moves retailers, health insurance companies and baseball managers. Big data that was last year’s “word(s) of the year,” big data that has every restaurant bill include a survey aiming for a good “net promoter score,” and finally, that has inspired a new generation of quants who are revolutionizing the business world, from finance to economics, from the family farm to Swiss banking. Just as the rapid change in technology demands that schools reflect and reconsider what they teach and how they teach, big data does as well, although perhaps in some other unanticipated ways. In my next column, I’ll reflect on how the presence and the possibility of mountains of data might influence our curriculum before tackling the implication of one specific area in the social sciences influenced by big data with big implications for schools.
We always live in someone else’s future. As the fans of the Baltimore Ravens might say, that’s why they play the game, because it’s never quite the future they imagined – as romantic or dystopic as those imagining it may be. The task of those who care for children is to understand the place of those visions of the future as they work to prepare for what comes next, as incompletely predictable as we know it will be.