I lost a thing two Sundays ago. I had already been unable to find a starting point for the day and then I couldn’t find the thing. I was going to write my first blog post, but I had lost the feeling for the idea that inspired me to create this blog in the first place. I lost that idea a week before. Two weeks later, three weeks after buying the domain, I’m still writing this post as I occasionally swirl past the draft on random currents in my daily sea of electric media.
The thing I lost that Sunday was part of the liquid electric fuzz that manages my ears along with the thing’s over-jiggly silicone rubber earphones. I couldn’t even be sure the thing was even possible to find. The thing could have slipped forever under the surface and become a figment, so I lacked optimism and my search wasn’t well-designed for success.
Finally, I checked to see if my fleet of electric fluff could find the thing floating out on the fluffosphere. It could. With confidence in the thing’s nearby existence, it took only a moment to find.
For an hour I had been caught in a cycle of looking in the same places over and over. Only after the thing’s name appeared on a list in my phone could my search lose its hopeless churn: hey, at the other end of my bed under the window… how did it get there?
Ray Bradbury died at the beginning of this month. One of his stories I never got around to reading was “The Toynbee Convector,” published in Playboy when I was 13. This story has been mentioned elsewhere and this is a good time to be introduced to it. I worry about climate change, ocean deterioration, and the effects of the continuing economic depression. These things sometimes overpower my optimism just as certain other people are demented by fears of the final battle with the Beast (or creeping socialism, sexually ambiguous hipsters, lizard people, whatever).
In “The Toynbee Convector,” a man builds a time machine and visits Earth 100 years in the future. He comes back with evidence of great improvements in technology, a peaceful civilization, and environmental restoration. Bradbury’s time traveler declares:
“We made it!” he said. “We did it! The future is ours. We rebuilt the cities, freshened the small towns, cleaned the lakes and rivers, washed the air, saved the dolphins, increased the whales, stopped the wars, tossed solar stations across space to light the world, colonized the moon, moved on to Mars, then Alpha Centauri. We cured cancer and stopped death. We did it—Oh Lord, much thanks—we did it. Oh, future’s bright and beauteous spires, arise!”
After his return the time machine is locked away by the government and the film and recordings are published by the time traveler, sparking a cultural orgasm of optimism. One hundred years after the time traveler’s journey, the world described by the time traveler has come to pass. The time traveler, however, reveals in an interview that he had lied all along: his journey to the future had been a hoax. The civilized world of the 1980s had been sinking into cynical dreams of dystopian futures, so Bradbury’s time traveler decided to do a bit of prophylactic and purple-prosed culture-jamming.
The “Toynbee” of the title refers to the real-world historian, Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee was a famous pop-intellectual among historians. For a long time in the 20th century he was considered “Mr. History” in the same way Marshall McLuhan was later considered “Mr. Media.” A central idea of Toynbee’s was that civilizations survive only by facing continual challenges that are difficult but possible. Otherwise, they are annihilated by adversity or fall into weak, decadent elitism.
While Ray Bradbury himself referred to the ideas of Arnold Toynbee as the inspiration for the story’s premise, I’m not sure Bradbury understood that his character’s gift to the world had nothing to do with Toynbee’s idea of measured challenges and continual renewal. Bradbury was reacting against the apocalyptic mania of science fiction in the 1980s and his time traveler simply gave society the confidence of knowing that civilization would have an almost miraculously optimistic endpoint. The time traveler’s “history machine” took away the perception of risk from the task of engineering sci-fi optimism in the real world.
Today we see misinformation about economic risk being used in the real world to turn the public against investments in science, infrastructure, education, health care, and environmentally sustainable technology. In Bradbury’s world, the time traveler laid down a brave and clear image of a future target. That future target, though, is a brave challenge only because he was lucky enough to present challenges that were possible. In our world, experts duel about the possibilities. Some wish to work toward a more egalitarian and sustainable future, others view that possibility with skepticism or disgust. Many more swim in confusion between the two visions.
My goal with this blog is to complete writings, complete them to my satisfaction, and fix them publicly in time to allow me move on. With two weeks spent getting here and still being unable to get fully around my point, my hair is too short to hold firmly and tear out. I don’t know if I’ll ever get this done. My mind plans, but the rest of me doesn’t really believe in the future. As in Bradbury’s scheme of hoaxing the world, I have to tease myself past my bodily skepticism with visions of accomplishment. Still, it seems so self-indulgent and the contemplated accomplishments are either unrealistic (somehow I’ll eventually be paid to… blog?) or shamefully lame (I blogged! I are now a blogger! Now for a warm bath and a utility knife!). These are optimistic lies, but they are possible lies and I might turn them into entries on a list.
The cynical and hopeless mutterings that always follow my hopeful lies stir more hopeful rebellion. It is the reason I’m taking this exercise. There’s always a larger message for the future of society and science fiction, but for right now I’m just trying to get to the end of this thought, which is: I must write and finish in order to know, finally, that I can, and then reach farther.