Over the the Classic Science Fiction Book Club Dwight proposed the following fascinating question:
If, somehow, you were confronted with a resident of 1950. (USA, large city). He/she would be a college grad working in a mid level management job. He/she would have a layman’s understanding of the state of science in 1950.
You have been given the task of explaining the present to this person. What do you think the hardest thing (Technological, social, political, and or environmental) would be to explain?
Explain, if you would, your assumptions as to the state of knowledge and experience that an adult might have had in 1950. Would you difficult items be different with a man or woman? Would race or religion matter? Would where they lived be an issue? Would their political/religious background be an issue as to what they would find hardest to accept/understand?
I find this to be a very clever question to stir up the book club discussion. 1950 is a very good year to choose too. It’s before science fiction kicked in big time, but after WWII and the atomic bombs. It was also after the 1939 World’s Fair where futurism made a big splash and got people thinking about the world of tomorrow. Having someone show up from the future would be understandable to them, although I doubt they would believe any time traveler without some substantial proof.
What if Klaatu had landed in Washington in his flying saucer, but it wasn’t from space, but a time machine. The Day the Earth Stood Still came out 9/28/51, so it’s around Dwight’s target date. Dwight imagined you or I magically talking to a person from 1950, but I’m not sure he figured out how that might happen. If you were just dropped into the past, and could only verbally describe the future, I’m not sure anyone would believe you.
Let’s imagine on 1/1/1950 a big flying saucer lands in Washington DC and out pops a 2014 person. They announce that they’ve come in peace to warn Earth about the future. That inside the saucer are twelve theaters, each showing a TV network in sync with one in 2014—CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, HBO, CNN, FOX News, Discovery Science, MTV, HGTV, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera. To make this equal to other cultures and languages, other flying saucers show up in their capitals with cable channels from their part of the world. The time travelers tells each host site that the machine will be there for one year and the government can allow whoever they want to view the screens. I think this is a sufficient scenario to assure that 1950 people will believe what they see. Remember Klaatu’s ultimatum? Our time travelers could give a similar warning. They could say humans are consuming the Earth, destroying the environment, killing off all the other life forms, and dooming life on Earth. They can brag that personal freedoms have never been more widespread and many have found material wealth, but we don’t know how live disciplined lives, and we’re breaking down into more and more polarized factions.
Now the big question is: How will they react? Will the white people of the United States believe there is a black President in 2014? What will they think of women’s behavior, gay marriage and legalized drugs? Could they even comprehend personal computers, the Internet and smart phones? If they caught episodes of Breaking Bad, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Shameless, etc. could they even understand the shows without freaking out? What would they think of the nudity, bad language and ultra-violence in entertainment? What about the music, visual art, computer animation, etc.? What would they think of the rise of Geek culture? Or the sexual revolution and The Pill?
Would they hate the future? Or would they be dazzled. Would they see the future as an extrapolation of the present, or a total surprise?
And what would they think about global warming? Or the war on terrorism? Or the rise of religious right. The motto “In God We Trust” wasn’t adopted until 1956, and didn’t show up on paper money until 1957, or coins until 1964. Would they even understand ecology and environmentalism? Jim Crow and sodomy laws were the norm back then, as were all kinds of censorship. If they watched Two Broke Girls or The View, or read an issue of Cosmopolitan would they be baffled by the change in women? Would the women of 1950 cheer? What would they think of food ads, and news stories about obesity? Would they admire the science and technology, or fear it? Would they get excited about all the new kinds of sports? Would they be outraged by women’s fashions and surprised that men’s suits don’t look that much different? Would they be amazed by our houses and how big they are compared to 1950’s houses.
Would they take notes about the destruction of the environment and enact laws to avert global warming? Would they stop the invention of junk food? Would they reign in the misuse of antibiotics? 2014 TV shows should show them how we evolved, but also show all the mistakes and suffering we went through to gain whatever wisdom we do have. Could people from 1950 absorb the wisdom without paying the price of suffering?
This is a fascinating idea. But it’s a fantasy. What if we could see 64 years into the future, what would we do? How many science fiction stories written before 1950 prepared the world of 1950 for our times? Is there a chance that modern science fiction writers can prepare us for the year 2078? Is that expecting too much?
JWH – 5/22/14
2 thoughts on “If You Could Time Travel to 1950 Could You Tell People What 2014 Is Like?”
I like what you did with the question. I opens up a whole host of questions. Would the attempt fail because the future is fixed? Would the attempt change history if the future was not fixed? Would the past create a new time line if they made different choices?
Much food for thought. Thanks.
This is great stuff! My first inclination was to think that explaining modern computing–how it’s revolutionized our lives, and shrunk to where you can carry a tiny computer (smartphone) in your pocket–would be unbelievable to them. But when you mentioned gay marriage and how women have come to be (nearly) equal to men in society, you gave me pause. My guess is that women’s status and sexual liberation would be about as hard for them to imagine as modern computing, but gay rights & marriage would probably be the hardest for them. I think if anything, that’s the part of my story where they thought I’d gone over the top and so I MUST be making stuff up.
I’d like to offer a small correction, btw: “In God We Trust” first appeared on our coins in 1864, some time before it became our official motto (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-cent_piece_%28United_States%29). (Heh heh, I have a two-cent without it, but that’s because it’s badly worn, not deliberately defaced.)