News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

June 26, 2010

MARK BENNETT: After a bruising decade, Americans view future less optimistically

TERRE HAUTE — It was great to hear that familiar can-do spirit in my college journalism prof’s voice.

We talked by phone last week. He’d just finished writing his 13th book about a topic that fascinates him — the frontier wars on America’s Great Plains. When I took his classes in the late 1970s and early ’80s, he’d just started researching the iconic tales of the Old West. Now, he’s got enough material to pen at least four more. Retired from his Indiana State University job, he and his wife live in North Carolina.

“If I had to set out in 1980 to plan my life the way it has gone, I couldn’t have done a better job,” Sandy Barnard told me.

By the way, he’s also awaiting a kidney transplant operation this summer. His son, a physical match, has offered to be the donor.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said, “because I choose to be.”

His inspiring outlook came to mind a day after our conversation, when I saw survey results on how Americans view the next 40 years.

According to The Smithsonian magazine and the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of people surveyed in April said they were somewhat or very optimistic about what the upcoming 40 years hold for them and their families. In 1999, 81 percent of us felt positive about the four decades ahead. Something sapped our optimism during the past decade.

The causes aren’t hard to pinpoint. Terrorism became an ever-present threat, thanks to Sept. 11, 2001. Two Middle East wars ensued, and still rage on. The economy tanked in 2008, and as it begins to recover, shell-shocked businesses and industries are scrutinizing every new hiring decision. Home values remain below their pre-Great Recession levels.

Still, this poll asked 1,546 adults across the nation to predict the quality and style of life in the years leading up to 2050.

2050. Not 2011 or ’12 or even 2015.

Have that many of us really converted to long-term pessimism?

There’s a good chance we actually know less than we think about the distant future. Expectations may not meet reality. Some things will change little. Others will disappear, get replaced and evolve almost daily.

A look back 40 years shows a country, staggered by war and political division. In 1970, who could’ve predicted that we’d be talking and texting and sending photos with cellphones that fit in our pockets. Who — in the era of three TV channels — knew we’d be saying, “250 channels on satellite, and there’s still nothing good to watch.”

On the first day of 1970, the Terre Haute Star’s lead editorial wondered about racial strife, asking if “a truly just and equal society” could be achieved. The Star questioned whether the United States and the Soviet Union would ever end their frightening arms race, instead of “mastering our destructive forces.” Just months earlier, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, capping an exhausting decade of extreme highs and lows. That giant leap for mankind had the Star questioning whether America had peaked. “And so, we might well be asking ourselves at the turn of a year, what can 1970 — or for that matter, any of the so many years yet to come — possibly do for an encore?”

Well, in 2008, Americans elected a black senator from Illinois as president. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Computers and digital devices let us calculate, communicate, investigate and educate ourselves with split-second speed.

Thus, optimism — in 2010 — needn’t be a fading virtue. Indeed, a majority — albeit dwindling — see hopeful prospects. Seventy-one percent think cancer will be cured by 2050. That achievement, alone, would belong on a list all its own. Technology will continue to alter our work, home and leisure time. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed expect computers to be able to converse like humans. Sixty-six percent think artificial limbs will outperform our natural arms, legs and digits. A majority expect astronauts to land on Mars, and ordinary people will travel in space. Seventy-four percent say energy will come from non-oil sources.

In the 1980s, Tim Sands saw hints of things to come while working for Bellcore, a spinoff of Bell Laboratories. As an engineer, he saw pioneering demonstrations of wireless communications, DSL, fiber-optic video conferencing and high-def TV. Now provost at Purdue University and professor of engineering, Sands co-chaired a seminar last spring called “Our Technological Future: Problems, Perils and Promises” at the West Lafayette campus.

Looking back at those previews of discoveries in the ’80s, Sands told the Tribune-Star, “I had a front-row seat, and it was almost a no-brainer to proclaim that these technologies would make it.” Clairvoyance wasn’t universal, though. Fiber-to-the-home technology, then, was deemed impractical because of the cost of trenching from the road curb to the house, Sands recalled.

The 40-year horizon from today promises some exciting mileposts. It won’t look like “The Jetsons,” though. That 1960s cartoon was set in 2062. George, Jane, Judy and Elroy Jetson completed tasks, once done manually, in seconds. George’s work week lasted nine hours. Their space-bubble cars folded up into briefcases. Their space boots allowed them to walk on walls and ceilings. Sidewalks floated and conveyed people in mid-air. Robots did all kinds of jobs. “I really don’t think we will all be flying around in ‘Jetson’-like vehicles,” Sands stated. “The physics of flight, at that scale, is not very favorable.”

But by 2050 (12 years before “The Jetsons,” if you believe in cartoons), we might be driving vehicles powered by clean-burning, pelletized biomass that converts heat into electrical power. Also, most lighting sources will be LED-based. At colleges, professors will abandon massive, 500-seat lectures and instead teach large classes online, with real-time communications with students. “We will still go to football … and basketball games in stadia and arenas, unless someone figures out how to virtualize the beer (or soda) spilled down your back,” Sands said.

Just as the 1970 Terre Haute Star editorial worried about America’s will to address its pollution problem, racism and nuclear weapons, this year’s Pew poll reveals some similar fears. More than half suspect a third world war will unfold, that terrorists will hit the United States with a nuclear attack, oceans will become less healthy (this poll was taken before the full brunt of the BP spill in the Gulf was known), and global warming will worsen.

The 2000s took a toll on our optimism, obviously. In ’99, when the economy was humming and 9/11 was inconceivable, more Americans saw better times ahead. Maybe the farther we get from the past 10 years, the more positive we’ll think. A line from an Associated Press story in that 1970 issue of the Star could apply to today, with just a switch of the decades. It detailed riots, assassinations, Middle Eastern wars, Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs incident. “Had we known in advance what the ’60s would be like,” the AP said, “we might have tried skipping them.”

It’s a glass half-full or half-empty situation. Optimism is a choice.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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