Spirit of the age

"What a glorious time to be free"

“What a glorious time to be free”

When I was a kid I was into the space program. I stayed up late watching the moon landing and I dreamed that, one day, I would watch a launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida. I bought all the model rocket kits and was a bit unique in this respect as most kids of my age were into football or kung fu. In the evenings I would stay up to listen to the “Bongs” of News at Ten to see if there was an item on the space program. Gradually, after 1969, the space program lost momentum and fewer and fewer bongs included astronauts. The public had become blasé about space.

No matter, I had discovered Science Fiction. I started on Marvel comics. The outsider characters were my favourites: Spiderman, The Hulk, the Silver Surfer. I graduated to the novels of Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock and Phillip K. Dick. I eagerly devoured the meagre diet of Science Fiction films which were screened on British TV: The Day The Earth Stood Still, Silent Running and Dark Star. I was regarded as a little eccentric by my peers. One guy told me that I could see a brick and think it looked like a space ship……and I could.
I listened to Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream and subscribed to two magazines: Omni and Analog. These ran Science Fiction stories alongside the latest thinking in science and technology. I discovered the wonder of fractals and read about memes, chaos theory, alternative universes and virtual reality.

In 1977 Star Wars and Closer Encounters Of The Third Kind were released and at last we had big budget films with fantastic special effects. Science Fiction was suddenly popular.

I studied computer science at school and got a job as a computer operator working on minicomputers known as PDP11s running an operating system called RSTS/E. Our first machine had 96K of RAM and the disk drives were the size of washing machines and held 40 megabytes each. Locked away in machine rooms with computers the size of wardrobes I was pigeon holed, not as a “techy”, but as a “computer person”. Nobody knew what we did and nobody set any rules. We dressed how we wanted, we worked how we wanted and we had a lot of fun. Moving to London I discovered an obscure science fiction book shop in Denmark Street called Forbidden Planet.

Home PCs became available and it was possible to create fractal images with the press of a button. Computer gaming got going and the simple text based games such as Advent and Dungeon, which I had played at work, were replaced by full colour shoot ‘em ups.

Something odd was happening: My interests were becoming main stream. The popular media seemed to be mining my childhood for ideas.

In 1982 Blade Runner was released and suddenly all the weird and disturbing themes of Phillip K. Dick were simplified, tarted up and splashed all over the big screen. A fantastic film yet the special effects and the charisma of the actors overshadowed the subtle and mundane realism with which Dick somehow manages to portray the strange and insidious.

In the 80s a wave of technology based innovation ran through finance and banking and governments deregulated. Money sloshed around the industry and fortunes were made. Computers became ubiquitous and as fast as Intel improved the hardware capacity Microsoft bloatware ate it up. People started paying allegiance to software vendors as if they were football teams; Windows vs OS2, Windows NT vs Netware and, these days, iPhone vs Android. Had we all lost the plot?

Publishers such as New Riders churned out endless poorly edited books claiming to teach IT but which were little more than rewritten documentation. Computer departments appeared in book shops. In the early 80s I struggled to find books on operating systems and networking but by 1990 the computer departments in bookshops were ballooning and Foyles devoted a whole floor.

The money attracted Price Waterhouse and KPMG who read a few books on technology, set themselves up as consultants and started selling the bleeding obvious back to customers. The smooth talking suits followed a simple creed: “Bullshit baffles brains” and if there was one thing they knew about it was bullshit.

Hollywood made feature length versions of the old Marvel comic books. Batman in 1989 then moving on to the anti-heroes of my youth, Spiderman in 2002 and the Silver Surfer in 2007.

In 2001 the Lord of The Rings was released. Hold on, this was getting personal. Was nothing from my childhood sacred? It seemed that the very stuff of my psyche was being commandeered by the corporations. The fabric of my personal philosophy was being ground up, digested and regurgitated back at me stripped of subtlety, emotion and meaning.

The spirit of the 60s and 70s was optimism and hope. Science would create a bright future. “Just machines to make big decisions, Programmed by fellers with compassion and vision” sang Donald Fagan belatedly in 1982. I recommend listening to this song and reading the lyrics. The young may get a feel for the optimism of a different age and the old man like to remember.

However, the seeds of doubt were always present and I had picked up on them in my youth. Now the dystopian ideas of Phillip K. Dick were taken up by new authors such as William Gibson and transformed into cyberpunk. In 1999 The Matrix was released portraying a sinister world in which humanity lived unknowingly in a virtual world while their physical bodies lay inert.

The marketing industry got into its stride and started targeting our sub-conscious. We mortgaged our futures to pay for the dreams used to sell deodorant. As Dick had predicted the corporations bent reality to maximise their profits.

This week Hollywood are, again, engaged in recycling cultural icons from the past. A new movie has been released based on the marvel comic book character Captain America. Perhaps, at this time of conflict and economic uncertainty, America is trying to return to its youth. Trying to revert to those days when most of us had faith in science, democracy and the future.

But what does the future hold? What stories or icons or memes of today will Hollywood recycle in thirty years time? Corporations cannot generate art they can only package and sell it. They can only reproduce existing ideas so where are the ideas? The blind optimism of the 60s and 70s is as outdated as the cynical greed of the 80s and 90s.

It’s time for a new direction but our compass is still spinning.

So why do I feel optimistic? Right now we are on the cusp of change. Right now is when the seeds of the future are being sown. I am maturing in years and rather than thinking about spaceships and time travel I find myself speculating about pensions and politicians. I suspect that the young already have an idea of where we’re going.

It would be nice if they shared it with the rest of us.

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St Malo Beach

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