Twenty Minutes Into the Future, by John Ostrander
A little more than twenty years ago there was, briefly, a smart satiric SF TV series called Max Headroom. It starred Matt Frewer who now has a supporting role on another smart comedic TV series called Eureka, which in a few weeks will start its third season on the SciFi channel. On the earlier series, Frewer played both the crusading young news reporter, Edison Carter, and his manic, stuttering electronic alter-ego, Max Headroom. It also had a terrific cast that included Jeffrey Tambor, Amanda Pays, George Coe and – as an regularly recurring villain – Charles Rocket.
I’m surprised no one has thought of updating it for a movie or another TV series.
The series was set, as it stated at the start of every episode, “twenty minutes into the future.” This future has a cyberpunk feel and TV rules the land. It is, in fact, against the law to turn your television off. If you cannot afford a television, one will be provided for you. The major networks are global and ratings are instantaneous and constant, being tied to revenue. The programs we glimpse might have come from Paddy Chayefsky’s great movie, Network. In addition, Max Headroom really did anticipate a number of trends that are now commonplace.
It’s that “twenty minutes into the future” gag that keeps popping up in my mind. It’s both brilliant and really tough to do. You need to be perceptive of the world as it is and then be able to project forward, to see the consequences of what we’re doing today, and that seems almost impossible. If there’s one thing we’re real good at doing, it’s ignoring unpleasant facts until it’s no longer possible to do. By then, it’s usually too late.
When I was teaching, one of the assignments I gave my students was to take something of today and then project it “twenty minutes into the future.” In other words, describe that future. They had to be able to justify it; it has to have connections to the real world. Anybody can play.
For example, we’re now in a major energy crisis. The price of oil keeps going up and there’s nothing to suggest it’s going to come down quickly. Yes, by all means, slap some regulations on the oil speculators who may be causing a price increase by as much as a quarter to a third. That will simply slow down the rising price of oil but it won’t roll it back. Let’s just take the high cost of oil as a given. What are the impacts of that and are they all necessarily bad?
Keep in mind that when we mention oil, we’re certainly including gasoline, diesel and heating oil, but we’re also including everything that uses oil in its make-up, such as plastics.
It’s not hard to see the impact on the price of food, for example. Fuel drives the farm machinery as well as the transportation that brings the food to market. The desire for an alternative to oil brings us to ethanol, the corn-based derivative. Problem is, some people are saying the international food crisis is being exacerbated by all the corn being grown as fuel. Do we feed people or machines?
On the other hand, do we see the return of the more local grown foodstuffs? The shorter the distance from where the food is grown to where it is consumed should have lower prices than those trucked long distances. What will the American farm and the American table look like twenty minutes from now?
The costs of goods and merchandise goes up because the cost of making them goes up and, even more important, when the factories are overseas the cost of transporting them goes way up. On the other hand, I’ve seen reports that say the high cost of oil may bring factory jobs back to the United States. What will “made in America” look like twenty minutes from now?
The State of Utah has announced that, as an energy saving measure, it is going to a four day, ten-hour work week come early August. This will hold for most of the 23,000 state jobs, not including such services as police. It will save on heating and cooling, among other things, to an impressive degree. Some employees like it and others, such as single parents and/or those working second jobs, are having real problems with it. Two other states are looking into the same idea and you can bet industry will do the same. What will the American work place look like twenty minutes from now?
A local college in a rural area in Ohio is going to offer a week’s worth of classes stuffed into a single day. The concept is that the students, if they can do it, won’t have to spend the gas going back and forth all week. It’s not mandatory; it’s an optional program and the school says the students have to be highly motivated to do it. If it works, however, will it become more prevalent? It saves costs for both students and school. Or will more schools go to more online classes? What will the American education look like twenty minutes from now?
People are already driving less because of the price of gas. This will have a positive effect on the environment. Fewer carbon emissions. Honda is about to introduce its hydrogen fuel cell car in California. GM is trying to sell off the Hummer brand of SUVs or Sports Recreational Military Vehicles or whatever they are. Last Sunday’s Opus in the funny papers had every liberal’s dream – solar panels on the garage roof feeding a converter unit plugged into an all electric car while the main characters mooned pictures of Arab Oil Sheiks, Big Oil Execs, and Dick Cheney (who is a hideous mutant mixture of both).
Meanwhile, the cost of air flights coupled with the airlines draconian measures to keep themselves afloat are almost certain to lower the number of people who can afford to fly. And the train system continues to molder in this country. What will the American transportation system look like twenty minutes from now?
Is that future, even in the short run, necessarily dystrophic? Well, no – despite the fact that writers such as myself like to keep playing with that type of scenario. There will be solutions; there always are. Or we’ll adapt. That’s what humanity does and it’s what this country has made a practice of doing. What it really signifies is change and, as an Old Fart, in general I’m agin’ it. Change is difficult, dagnabit! It’s like hitting puberty again; I hit puberty once and puberty hit back. There was change and I wasn’t in charge and I didn’t know where it was going. It feels like that again only outside my body.
Still, one can’t help speculating about the future. As the Amazing Criswell said in Ed Wood’s masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”
See you in twenty minutes.
Writer John Ostrander writes stuff.