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Tea leaves and life lines

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-11-17


I'll always watch Ridley Scott's science-fiction classic Blade Runner (1982) when it shows up on movie channels and not just because of the film's many aesthetic achievements: I'm more fascinated to see how close (or how far) the movie gets to accurately predicting what the future will look like. I do this with all science-fiction movies, from Metropolis to 2001 to Total Recall, I like to see how forward-thinking the writers actually turn out to be. Blade Runner is set in 2019, a mere eight years away from 2011, and as we get closer to the date I'm interested to see what writer Philip K. Dick forecast as the likely landscape for this country, specifically Los Angeles, in the future years.

The first thing you'll notice in Blade Runner is that the writers greatly overestimated the technological advancements of the 21st century. We've not quite colonized Mars, just yet (in fact, the space program has all but been abandoned), and though there have been some interesting genetic-engineering developments, life-sized replicants aren't exactly rolling off the line at this time. Granted, there's still eight years left, but I'm betting we're not going to have those "aerodyne" cars, either, vehicles that ride the air and have the capacity to move like combination helicopters/sports cars. And as for the constant rain in Los Angeles like many science-fiction writers, Dick imagined that some sort of apocalypse was inevitable by the next century, and while it's never explicitly stated in the film, you get the feeling that some sort of nuclear event occurred and knocked the weather out of whack. (In Dick's novel that was the basis for the movie, it's more definitive.) Of course, there still could be an Armageddon in our future, by 2019, but so far, fingers crossed, it looks like Blade Runner missed that one, too.

Having spent some time in downtown Los Angeles, however, I will say that the film makers got the milieu down surprisingly well the astonishing mix of street commerce, incomprehensible languages, babbling noise, speed, motion, and the hundreds of walking wounded and MIA's that populate the streets of real-life downtown Los Angeles reminded me of nothing as much as the "movie" Los Angeles in Blade Runner. And the portrait of the large, biotech/engineering corporations in the movie as being immoral, rapacious, blood-sucking entities certainly has some resonance with current conditions.

I'm most interested in the two, subtle, social/cultural changes that the film makers in 1982 absolutely gaffed on: smoking and cell phone use. As in Alien, Scott's other science-fiction movie set in the future, characters smoke liberally in Blade Runner, everywhere, in public spaces and in private. It's actually one of the more jarring things in the movie when you watch it in 2011, how people light up at work, in business meetings, at restaurants. In the early 80's, when smoking rates had been about 60% higher than they are now, it probably seemed inconceivable that the now-ubiquitous ban on public smoking would have taken such a strong hold on communities in the future. And it's hard not to giggle when you see Deckard (Harrison Ford) use a futuristic phone booth to call one of the replicants (Sean Young.) A phone booth? I know they still exist, but outside of the ones I've seen at the airport, I can't place the location of a single one anywhere in Fort Wayne. Of all the technological advances portrayed in the movie, it's surprising that the film makers didn't consider at all the inevitable evolution of communication in the 21st century, which has probably been the defining achievement of our age.

None of this reduces the impact of the movie, of course; Blade Runner is still one of the greatest of its genre. And I know that Philip Dick was a writer, not a scientist, and probably wasn't interested in seeing his prognostications come to existence. And really, I have to wonder, is it possible that anybody could have had such strong foresight to make those long-range predictions? I wonder if even the most visionary of technological thinkers Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, Larry Ellison, Stephen Hawking could have imagined the ubiquity of cell phone use in the modern world and its affect on the cultural and economic forces in today's society. Could they have predicted that teenagers would be texting 400 times a day, that people would ride subways, eat in restaurants, all the while staring at their hands? That encyclopedias and newspapers and maps and hell, even hard-bound books would become all but obsolete? Could they have imagined that the contours of social discourse would change so radically that the emphasis is no longer on public language and interaction but on shutting people out and eliminating any possible distractions from the alternate realities that exist in their palms? I saw another commercial last week, another in a now long series of ads, that showed a blissful twenty-something obliviously walking through a spectacular landscape, all the while staring at his phone. Things were literally exploding around him and he didn't notice. It was as if the world needed to stop still while he took a call from some equally-oblivious friend.

I long ago accepted the notion that I was destined to be a man out of time, a Luddite, a hopeless crank shaking his powerless fist at the tide of progress. And I don't think I'm the only one. My two aunts visited me a few months ago, taking a stop in Indiana before traveling on to Florida, and it was touching and somewhat saddening when they told me they had to stop at AAA before continuing on their journey they needed to get maps and those antiquated "Trip Ticks" to get to Florida. Those "Trip Ticks" are so old-fashioned when compared to smart phone travel apps and Google Earth and MapQuest., yet my aunts, both in their 70's, insisted on using them.

Now, I love maps, and I can spend virtually hours looking at them, but on a recent road trip to Kentucky a friend's smart phone showed me that studying maps is the Dark Ages when it comes to modern travel. His phone not only displayed detailed maps, it also showed real-life travel patterns and suggested alternate routes if construction delays thwarted our plans. It was, in short, and invaluable device, and I begrudgingly had to toss my well-loved maps back into the glove box, where they'll probably be forever, never used again.

I still refuse to get fully plugged in, however; my phone is for calls only, no texts, and outside of road trips I have no intention to get any other app. I don't need to check my e-mail, my Facebook, sports scores, really, any internet influence when I'm not at home.
The world may continue to change, but I remain obstinate, refusing to lead, follow, or get out of the way. There's been a strong demographic change in this country in the past 30 years, a mini-baby boom happened between 1980 and 1993, and it's pretty obvious that the new generation has been trained to adapt to the new paradigm of the 21st century much better than the old-world lovers like myself and my aunts. Therefore, I'm resigned to my fate as the guy left behind, the guy outdistanced by the advancements in the brave new world. So if you'll excuse me--I need to fire up the old Model-T, put on my spats, and drive downtown to the bank, the bakery, the post office.

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