The moment in which I actually entered the twentieth century, despite the fact that I'd already been on the planet for 33 years by then, can be traced back to September of 1980 and the day we brought home my first color television set.
It was only a 13-incher, and I would have been happy with black and white for quite a bit longer if it hadn't been for Carl Sagan, and his series Cosmos. I just couldn't imagine watching what promised to be the best astronomy show ever, in black and white. And I was right. It was gorgeous, and well written, and had me and my kids (even though one of them was only a year old) riveted to that tiny set.
A few days ago, Beloved Spouse, who's not usually impressed by much, came home abuzz about a show he'd heard on XM radio on his way home from tennis. It was an interview with Nick Sagan, Carl's son (the one whose voice was recorded on the "golden record" sent out on Voyager I, with greetings from the children of planet Earth) in which he talked about his book You Call This the Future, and (with his mother, Linda Salzman-Sagan) about making the "record." I didn't hear the broadcast, but apparently they also played "The Pale Blue Dot" (which is floating around on YouTube with quite a number of tribute videos), in which the late Sagan reminds us of the utterly amazing nature of our planet's very existence, and the fact that it may well be unique in the universe. I for one hope not, but don't expect to stay alive long enough to find out differently.
In the usual manner in which coincidences work, we finally got to see Pixar's WALL-E on Sunday, and it's now my official all-time favorite American animated film. Of course its environmental theme and its engaging, rather gentle, but nonetheless pointed exploration of modern popular culture resonated like crazy with the Sagan video. The little pale dot that is us is, for all we know, all we have. And, unlike the folks who built WALL-E and sent the Axiom out into space, we don't have a deus-ex-machina to rescue us; nor do we have time to develop the technology at the rate we're going.
After all, we don't even have flying cars yet, as Sagan the Younger points out in his book. We're still trying to figure out how to get past the internal combustion engine, making me think that because of our insoluble bonds to Big Oil and Big Power, we're stuck with an eternal, infernal combustion engine. The fires of our own human-made hell, anyone?
What surprised me about WALL-E, though, was not the way it dealt with the trashed out-planet, or even the "Buy n Large" conglomerate that runs everything (after all, I'm a Chuck fan, and the "Buy More" jokes are already part of my vocabulary). The most telling aspect of the vision of the future represented in the film was the end product of our "plug in; tune out" culture, which is now only in its infancy. But at the rate we're going, it really isn't hard to imagine a bunch of balloon-like humanoid creatures floating around in mag-lev barcaloungers sipping frankenfood ("pizza in a cup!") through a straw.
When WALL-E accidentally bumps a couple of the Axiom's inhabitants out of their chairs, they suddenly start noticing what's around them, and it's as if a spark's been lit. Wonder happens. The same wonder I'm beginning to miss in many of my students. And we don't even have flying chairs . . . yet.
Our kids already have drastically shortened attention spans (except when they're playing video games), only read online (and what they read is really problematic), socialize as if they were attached to E. M. Forster's Machine, and are becoming obese (and developing related infirmities) at an alarming rate. Our best and brightest are becoming limited by increasingly impoverished environments, even as the amount of information they're asked to process increases exponentially.
WALL-E is a sweet, poignant movie that disturbs me in ways I never expected it to. While paying homage to our pale blue dot, and reminding us of Carl Sagan's lesson, it also pines wistfully for an awakened consciousness about over-dependence on technological toys. It makes me look back on the days when I truly appreciated my tiny color TV--my only entertainment source besides a stereo, a Victrola, and a couple of pre-schoolers--in innocent ignorance of what the future had in store, flying cars or no.
Photos: WALL-E wallpaper from Pixar; Pale Blue Dot from Wikipedia.