Friday, June 27, 2014

Mainstream Creativity - What Happened?

I wasn't there, so I can't swear to it as an earwitness. But I have read that the great Tecumseh once said, "When the legends die, the dreams end. When the dreams end, there is no more greatness."

Our legends are not dying nowadays. Not exactly. But they are twisting. Withering. Weakening and becoming distorted shadows of what they were. I have watched it happen over the last two generations. It worries me. I'm talking about America. I am not qualified nor entitled to talk about anybody else, although some of this might apply to other countries too. I suspect it will, but I'm not going to presume to paste any labels.

Full disclosure here. I am old. More than half a century have I seen. Although neither short, nor green, wrinkled and pudgy I am too. So these words could very well be the senile mumblings of a decaying fossil. But it's my blog, so I am going to mumble along anyway.

I was a youngster back in the 1960's and 70's. It was a different world. I'm not talking about technology either. The changes in technology over the last 30-40 years have been incremental. Granted, they have been wondrous, life-changing, and fantastic. But the seeds for every technological shift today had already been planted by the end of WWII.

Rockets, jet engines, antibiotics, interstate highways, radar, sonar, electronic computing, long distance wireless communication, television. Synthetic polymers. These have all been in place for two generations. Two generations, people.

In a real sense, once the transistor was invented the solid state integrated circuit was inevitable. Once the IC was invented, personal computers were on their way. It was just a matter of time.

Well, it was actually a matter of both time and imagination. People had to imagine the PC, and the microwave, and the cell phone, and the smartphone, before they could be built.

So, will someone please tell me what happened? Where is the next big breakthrough? And please don't talk to me about one of the chip makers coming up with some way to cram yet another core onto one poor, overloaded, CPU. This is not innovation. This is desperation.

Quantum computing? When I see convincing evidence that it can be made to really work, I will get excited. Although quantum computing is an old idea too. Very old. Circa 1930's or thereabouts I believe, although back then they didn't know what quantum particles were. They just imagined that there were some things smaller than atoms and went with it. Technical accuracy in the details isn't the point. The point is that they weren't afraid to dream, and dream big.

So where did ALL of those ideas come from? Science fiction, that's where. Just like faster than light spaceships, like the design NASA says it is tinkering with now. Submarines have been used since the Middle Ages. But Jules Verne was the one who envisioned a long distance underwater craft that could stay submerged indefinitely, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And he was the one who envisioned space travel in From The Earth To The Moon. (Note that he was French. Credit where credit is due.) The idea of firing a cannon with a ship inside sounds a bit extreme, but at least he wasn't afraid to stretch his mind and dream. This was one hundred and fifty years ago!

I don't know if Heinlein was the one who came up with the idea for using radiation to heat food. I doubt it. He was too late in the game. I clearly recall that microwave ovens were being sold as upper attachments to kitchen stoves in my childhood, back in the days of black & white television. The company was called Quasar. I can still hear that cursed jingle in my head. The only real improvement to them since those days has been in the control panel, and in shrinking them slightly.

Where did today's smart phone come from? A science-fiction cartoon detective named Dick Tracy, that's where it came from. He had a wristwatch that doubled as a telephone. It also had a little screen, for video calls. Familiar? This was back in the 1930's, people. Eighty years ago. The designer of the clamshell phone freely admits he got the idea from Star Trek.

Which brings me back to the 1960's and 70's. Each new series was trying to top the last one on originality every fall, and by the time the 1970's arrived even the network executives were coming around to the idea the science fiction was a money maker. It took them a while. Same for movies. No one can possibly total up the number of classic science fiction and fantasy books that were written and published in that time. The Lord of the Rings was started back in WWII I believe, but it was in the 1960's that it took off across America like wildfire. It, quite literally, birthed a new genre.

What the hell happened? When was the last time you saw something genuinely new on mainstream/traditional entertainment media? Something that was not either a reboot, a sequel, or a re-imagining of someone else's work? When was the last time that the suits in Hollywood, or the suits in Trad publishing, permitted something new, with even the slightest amount of risk to it, out the door?

Harry Potter was a fun series, and I heartily recommend it for all young people. But wizard, witches, and evil magicians are not new. Neither are vampires or werewolves, romantic or otherwise. Nor are demon lovers in any form. I have no objection to re-telling the classics. I object when that's all that is allowed to be told.

Yes. We have indie books, and indie films, and indie music now. But the painful fact is, a lot of people either don't know about, or don't pay attention to us indies yet. Meanwhile, two generations have grown up watching and listening to the same thing, in many cases EXACTLY the same thing, that their grandparents watched.

Will someone, I am begging here, will someone please tell me how these kids are supposed to learn how to dream big dreams, and innovate, and create, and improve, and make the world a better, brighter place? How can they even learn that it's ok to dream at all, that taking intellectual risk is GOOD, and not frightening. It is not a sin to have a thought that no one has had before.

My grandchildren deserve better than this.

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