Monday, January 1, 2001

I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that


By David Gewirtz

Well, heck. Y2K is over. Gone. Kaput. Finito. Our greatest computing crisis turned out to be hanging bits of paper from punch card technology left over from the 60s.

So now, let's move on to 2K1. The year 2001 has some pretty heavy cultural expectations to live up to. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick saw to that back in 1968 with their "ultimate trip," 2001: A Space Odyssey. Man, I gotta tell you, those fellows got this one so wrong, it almost deserves a recount. But their mistakes were understandable, given the culture of the time.

Science fiction's been around for a very long time, but it hit the mainstream in the 40s and 50s with magazines like Amazing Stories and authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. During that time period, scientific advances were driven mostly by "big science," efforts where universities and governments teamed up to create things like atomic bombs. Transportation was undergoing major infrastructure metamorphosis with developments like jet-powered passenger planes, high-speed bullet trains (which debuted in Japan in 1964), and even the national highway system here in the U.S.

But, like we'd see in the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the ability of a government to sustain centralized, monolithic projects eventually collapses under its own weight. While both the United States government and the Soviets were active participants in the space race in the 1960s, social unrest and, most importantly, economic upheaval damaged the support for big science. In the U.S., of course, there was the Vietnam War, which pissed off at least two generations of young adults who were about to come into power. Then there were the so-called "gas shortage" of the 1970s and the aerospace slowdown (and huge layoffs) of the same time period. Many citizens questioned whether we should be sending men to the moon when there were people starving in the streets. And then, of course, there was the Challenger disaster. Individual Americans' faith in huge, centralized projects was damaged, possibly irrevocably.

But more than one project begun as big science survived and thrived in a commercial environment. Take, for example, the Internet. As nearly everyone knows, the network that was to become the Internet was put in place because the U.S. government wanted a mechanism so robust that communications would continue and route around nodes destroyed by a nuclear blast. Other technologies found their way into commercial use, including microwave technology, semiconductors, robotics, and much more.

It made sense, then, that to the science fiction writers of the 60s, which was when 2001: A Space Odyssey was written, expected advances in technology would be of a big science nature, featuring space planes, moon bases, and so forth. Of course, the 60s was also a hot time for the nascent drug culture (hence the movie's tag line of "The Ultimate Trip"), and so you on the one hand you get great sci-fi movies like 2001 and on the other hand you get really weird movies like, well, 2001.