In retrospect, I blame IGY.
Or rather Donald Fagen did. And who knew that my favorite jazz-rock fusion guy would also turn out to be my own generation’s Nostradamus?
Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” was the lead cut in his 1982 solo album “The Night Fly.” And 37 years later his dry irony still resonates.
Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” promised us an amazing future secured by:
“A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free.”
I read of Fagen’s inspiration on Wikipedia: “The title refers to the “International Geophysical Year,” an event that ran from July 1957 to December 1958. The I.G.Y. was an international scientific project promoting collaboration among the world’s scientists. Fagen’s lyrics sarcastically discuss the widespread optimistic vision of the future at that time, including futuristic concepts such as solar-powered cities, a transatlantic tunnel, permanent space stations, and spandex jackets. The song…offers a humorous critique on the naïveté of postwar optimism in America…”
And, listen, Fagen prophesied even before “just” machines began to transform our world with a vengeance. Back when the Moog Synthesizer was deemed the height of technological wizardry. The Internet was a Pentagon wet dream. The personal phone was the stuff of Dick Tracy.
Oh, we grocked the menace of HAL, thanks to “2001, A Space Odyssey.” But Facebook?
Still, the totality of all of the above has surely delivered us to the promised land.
Except, it turns out, that those programmer fellows had less compassion and more warped vision (I’m looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg) than we thought. Who knew social media would hijack our democracy, debase our culture and turn us all against each other? Or that we would devolve into a meaner, uglier, more self-absorbed species once “just” machines began to make our big decisions for us?
We don’t trust government. We hate the news media. We fear “the other”…anyone who doesn’t worship our idea of god or look, think and talk like we do. We huddle over our screens and wage virtual war on each other in splendid anonymity. We want to build walls and arm ourselves, and we are ready to follow any tinhorn despot (I’m looking at you, the other Donald) who assures us that our hatreds and prejudices are right and just.
What a wonderful world. How glorious to be free. And so easy to be clean at the end of the work day with robots doing more and more of the work.
I know someone – I’m sure we all do – who begins her day bidding Google good morning and getting its disembodied voice to tell her the news and weather and then turn on her television to the preferred channel. We’ve even made the remote control superfluous. How liberating is that?
True, we can’t vouch for the veracity of the information we’re being spoon fed. But in this Post-Truth Age all “facts” are presumed equal whether factual or not, so no matter.
Just machines now fly our planes, and only rarely crash them as pilots sit helpless to intervene. Just machines propel us down over-engineered highways with such excess power and at such velocity that we are happy to slaughter thousands of our fellow Americans each year just preserve our freedom of the road. Just machines have become so efficient and accessible that school children are sacrificed en masse on the alter of our sacred right to bear arms. Just machines track our purchasing, political and other perverse preferences. All the better to sell us the items, ideologies and idiocies that we had no idea we wanted.
Algorithms tell us who and what we are. Facial and voice recognition technologies watch over us. Can’t remember all your passwords? There’s an app for that.
And we have long passed the point of no return on our journey to this brave new world. There may have been a time when we could probably survive a prolonged loss of electricity and internet access. But no more. Not now that just machines run our power plants, control our traffic control, our food distribution system and virtually every other sustaining facet of civilization. How long would the power have to be out before it all collapses into anarchy? Before the most machine-dependent – and not coincidently – heavily armed people in the history of human civilization descend into savagery?
Fagen’s prophecy is our reality.
“Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from NewYork to Paris
Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K…
Get your ticket to that wheel in space
While there’s time
The fix is in
You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we’ve got to win
Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone
What a beautiful world this’ll be
What a glorious time to be free
But take heart. Perhaps the real source of our collective discontent is simply that we do not yet possess that fantastical undersea railway IGY promised. Nor even Elton Musk’s more modest mag-lev tunnel. And, listen, those damned transatlantic flights are sooo long and cramped and boring and soul killing.
But just imagine…90 minutes to Paris. What a wonderful world it will be then.