Our Generation, Unimaginative?

In a recent article in the Atlantic, P.J. O’Rourke discusses the difficulty Disney’s had in renovating the House of the Future attraction in Tomorrowland. The problem is of course that when it came out, folks apparently were willing to accept that the 1950s was the golden age of Americana (an ideology most recently and perhaps effectively argued against in AMC’s "Mad Men.")

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His thesis is that Disney can’t imagine what the House of the Future would look like because our culture is unimaginative. But here’s an excerpt from the crux of his article, which is worth quoting at length:

Well, given the future envisioned in Disney’s House of the Future, who can blame us for looking the other way?

Disney’s Tomorrowland is deeply, thoroughly, almost furiously unimaginative. This isn’t the fault of the “Disney culture”; it is the fault of our culture. We seem to have entered a deeply unimaginative era.

Let us not confuse imagination with innovation or even with progress. Man’s descent from the trees and adoption of the brilliant mechanics of bipedalism were innovation and progress of the first order. But what did we do with this progress for our first million years as humans? As best we can tell, we hung around the Olduvai Gorge and beat some rocks together to make “chopping tools.”

On the other hand, the Italian Renaissance was so imaginative that during its three centuries, practically everything worth imagining was imagined. And yet not much was actually invented in Florence, Pisa, or Rome.

Global imagination, like global climate, seems to have cycles—natural, man-made, or whatever. Sometimes what people imagine for the future is bogged down in the literal—call it “blogged” for short. The last thousand years of the Roman Empire, for example, were no great shakes. The Romans had all the engineering necessary to start an industrial revolution. But they preferred to have toga parties and let slaves do all the work.

The Chinese had gunpowder but failed to arm their troops with guns. They possessed the compass but didn’t go much of anywhere. They invented paper, printing, and a written form of their language, but hardly anyone in China was taught to read.

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And here we are in 2008. Name an avant-garde painter. Nope, dead. Nope, dead. Yep, Julian Schnabel is what I came up with too. But it’s been a quarter of a century since he was pasting busted plates on canvas. He’s making movies now. And movies are famously not any good anymore. Name a great living composer. Say “Andrew Lloyd Webber” and I’ll force you to sit through Cats and Starlight Express back-to-back. Theater is revivals and revivals of revivals and stuff like musicals made out of old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercials, with Nathan Lane as “Snap.” More modern poetry is written than read. Modern architecture leaks and the builders left their plumb bobs at home. The most prominent contemporary art form is one that is completely unimaginative (or is supposed to be): the memoir.

To top it all off, we have just experienced perhaps the greatest technological advance in the history of humans. And what are we using the Internet for? To sell one another 8-track tapes on eBay and tell complete strangers on Facebook the location of all our tattoos. And, apparently, to tell ourselves what to do with the groceries we just bought.

Ouch. I will contend that under the way O’Rourke seems to define "imagination," he might have a point. his definition of "imagination" seems to focus solely on artistic works.

I offer three explanations as to why our generation is not as "imaginative" as others:

(1) Our imagination IS our innovation. But that "innovation" and "progress" he writes off so quickly in the
third paragraph, is an imagination of it’s own. Why is imagining a
world where people can make call, watch movies, listen to music and
write memos in a box that fits into the palm of ones hand artistically
inferior to imagining the world in dots (pointillism)?

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(2) Our tools are new.
No other generation has had so much innovation. Convergence Culture isn’t a thing of the future. It’s here. When I turn on my Sony Playstation 3, I can download episodes of Gossip Girl, I can download music, I can download games, I play games on Blue-Ray (as well as audio CDs, DVDs, and Playstation 1 and 2 formats–not to brag). When I turn on my iPod classic, I can also download episodes of Gossip Girl, I can download music (bigger selection), I can download games (a smaller selection). I can do all of these same things on my Mac. It’s no longer a matter of whether there’s a place where you can get media convergence it’s about who profits from it. Are you going to get your convergent media through Sony? How about Apple? Microsoft? Fries with that?

When I was born, not only did these companies not exist, the technology didn’t exist. Painting tools existed a long time before the Mona Lisa. The Printing Press existed for 400 years before we received "Les Miserables" and "Tale of Two Cities." You have to learn how to use a paint brush before you make a masterpiece.

(3) Why can’t we imagine what the House of the Future looks like? With all the tools and access to built up imagination of the ages, it’s hard to agree on what the future looks like. On a cultural standpoint: does the House of the Future have a husband-wife-kids nuclear family? Some would like to envision a future that does. Statistically, it doesn’t look likely. Could the House of the Future have same-sex parents? Can that be done while respecting previous stages of the House of the Future? From a technological standpoint: does it look like this:

Inside it will feature hardware, software and touch-screen systems that could simplify everyday living.

Lights and thermostats will automatically adjust when people walk into a room. Closets will help pick out the right dress for a party. Counter tops will be able to identify groceries set on them and make menu suggestions.

Communications standpoint: are the kids text-messaging each other from across the room? My students do. Or have they found some new way to communicate (Telepathy sounds neat but would be lame, since you couldn’t hear it in the attraction).

It’s to easy to label our generation as unimaginative. Every generation has it’s strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure when the "Greatest Generation" was born, the grandparents were muttering "so unimaginative…"

Greg Perreault

Greg Perreault is a former M.A. student in the Communication, Culture, Technology program at Georgetown University. He has a B.A. in News and Information from Palm Beach Atlantic University and spent three years working in print journalism before he and his wife, Mimi, moved to Washington, D.C. A writer at heart, his work has been published across the country at outlets including The Palm Beach Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times. He continues to freelance for United Press International. His interests lie the influence of media on society. He has a particular interest in media influence on culture, especially religion. He’s currently the Program Coordinator for the Washington Journalism Center where he lectures on general media and journalism issues. He also manages the InkTank blog for the program’s undergraduates, who also contribute to it, and maintains a personal blog Gaelic Gopher which also explores media issues.