They tore down the Randall Park Mall a few months ago. I’d never been to it – it was out in Ohio, a couple hundred miles away from where I grew up – but The Bechtloff used to go there all the time when he was a kid, and the loss of the place gave him occasion for some melancholy reflection. I didn’t really need to have been to Randall Park to know what it was like; I was a child of suburban America in the 80s, and that was the height of the mall and of mall culture. So I felt that sense of loss right along with him, and started thinking about what it all meant.
There’s a lot to complain about in being over 40, but I still feel rather sorry for anyone too young to remember what the 80s were like. We live in an angry, worried, fearful age here in the 21st century; and what’s worse, the young have no memory of a day in which things were any different. And yet, it did exist. It was a time when you could say that you were proud of your country and mean it. It was a time when it still seemed like the system could work; that it still might find ways to fix all the things that were wrong with our society. It was a time when it still looked like the bad guys would be defeated in the end. People had more pride in themselves back then: the morbidly obese, the garishly tattooed, the grown men dressed like adolescent boys in falling-down pants or in t-shirts with obscene slogans on them – these were all still rare and freakish. Some of the hairstyles may seem silly now, but even those took an amount of time and effort to pull off that showed us for a people who still took care of ourselves.
And everything was happening down at the mall, the epicenter of 80s social life. For those who aren’t old enough to have seen it yourselves, or who are and want a blast of nostalgia, a photographer named Michael Galinsky recently published a book called Malls Across America, which features pictures he took in malls during a road trip in 1989, and which will take you right back to those days. The Daily Mail did a feature on it, which includes many of his pictures. I remember the world that Galinsky captured in those pictures clearly, though I suppose it was all very long ago now.
My dad – sour old lefty that he is – always hated the mall. He thought it was an artificial and consumeristic replacement for Main Street, USA. But he was wrong about that – it wasn’t a replacement for Main Street, but an update of it. Yes, its economic purpose was to sell things (as was the purpose of the shops on Main Street). But as Galinsky’s pictures show, people went there for much more. They went to do all the things they did on Main Street: dining, meeting friends, promenading, or simply going there to see what everyone else was up to. It wasn’t merely retail space, it was social space where friends gathered and communities formed.
But that wasn’t why I liked to go to the mall. I went because to me, the mall looked like The Future.
Here we must make a distinction between the future and The Future. Chronologically speaking, the future is merely that which will happen at a point further along in time than the present, whether by milliseconds or by aeons. I am writing this sentence in the present, and in the future – maybe by a few days, or even a few years – you will read it. But that’s not the same as The Future. No, The Future is what we have been told about by authors, filmmakers, artists, and even creators of ten-cent comic books for the better part of a century and a half now. The Future is what we have been promised by scientists, politicians, industrialists, and even revolutionaries. All over the Soviet Union stood statues of Lenin with his hand outstretched, showing the way forward to The Future. In America, men like Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney (the latter two of whom were the primary influences behind the character of Howard Stark in the Marvel superhero films) not only showed us The Future, but built it with their own hands.
The Future is a place of massive buildings, of gleaming cities, of wide multi-level highways, of stiletto-shaped supersonic planes, of rocket launches, and of enormous video billboards (perhaps with something vaguely Japanese displayed on them). Everything in The Future is fast and sleek and clean and safe and automatic – but above all, everything in The Future is big and imposing; it strikes you with a sense of awe at its sheer size and scale.
That’s how I felt as a kid walking around the mall. The mall was big and beautiful and comfortable and even a little overwhelming. All of the wide passages, lined by stores, were multi-level – two in most places, but three at the food court and the movie theater. Everything there was new and gleaming and clean and safe, and automatic sliding doors and escalators were all around the place. There were walkways suspended in midair over wide indoor plazas and courtyards. In one of these, there was a small skate park, complete with quarter pipes, vert ramps, and a funbox, where kids could bring their skateboards all year round; in another, there was an indoor waterfall surrounded by palm trees that were green even in the depths of winter.
And then, of course, there was the arcade. It was pitch dark and full of glowing screens, and the sounds of all manner of electronic beeps and chiptunes were overwhelming. It felt like no less than walking onto the bridge of some spaceborne battlecruiser in the midst of combat. And the games! I cannot – there is no possible way to – make you understand just how much like The Future something like Pac-Man or Zaxxon or Defender looked to us, even if now they seem crude or even quaint. But we were in awe of the fact that we were playing a game against a computer – a computer! – that was drawing things recognizable as representations of real-life objects on its screen. None of us had ever been launched into orbit on the Space Shuttle or gone to Paris on a supersonic jet, but all of us played video games down at the mall arcade – and we were living in The Future when we did.
They tore down the Randall Park Mall a few months ago, and when they did, they tore down The Future. What does it all mean?
But wait – it was the internet that killed the mall, and what is the internet except the very embodiment of The Future? What indeed! Was The Future supposed to be an age of people sitting inside, passively staring at screens that displayed endless banalities (cat videos, Facebook selfies, and internet porn)? If so, that was only the very darkest vision of The Future – it is The Future of Mrs. Montag, of Edison Carter, and of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. And it’s not as if a few decades has made the experience of going out to shop any better, either – now it is both less like Main Street and less like The Future than ever. The decline of the mall coincided not only with the rise of the intenet, but also with the rise in earnest of Walmart and other big-box warehouse stores. There are no skate parks or indoor waterfalls at Walmart. The increasingly impoverished remnants of what was once our middle class shuffle in to buy cheap junk made by political prisoner slave labor in some dismal factory in faraway China. You’ll find no sense of community there, nor, considering the degree to which the former middle class has degraded, would you likely want to.
That isn’t The Future that we were promised; it isn’t The Future that was supposed to come. And here is a dark thought: What if we reached The Future, and then passed it? What if it has come and gone, and now we are in a post-Future future?
Consider: none of us kids in the arcade had ever been launched into orbit on the Space Shuttle or gone to Paris on a supersonic jet, and now it is decades later – decades into the future – but the chances that we ever will do those things have, in fact, decreased all the way to zero. The Space Shuttle has been retired for years now, and the Concorde for yet longer. Nor is either likely to ever be replaced by a newer version of the same thing. Occasionally a government agency or an aerospace company will release a concept drawing and a press release full of promises – good material for an eye-catching Popular Mechanics cover – but they always come to nothing.
When was the last time you felt like you were in The Future? How about the last time that didn’t involve staring at a screen?
Yes, the future is always ahead of us, but it is more and more beginning to look like The Future is behind us. Evidence of this is everywhere, even in what are supposed to be the most futuristic places. Living in what the technology writer John C. Dvorak calls the “northern Silicon Valley”, I am friends with a few Google employees, and have a handful of occasions a year to be invited to lunch at the Googleplex, the company’s headquarters in Mountain View. The food is excellent, and the place is pleasant enough, but going there is always attended by a sense of disappointment. If we lived in The Future (in the world of the classic cyberpunk of the 1980s and 1990s) Google – the world’s most powerful and influential technology corporation – would be housed in a hundred-story jet-black skyscraper with a huge neon “GOOGLE” sign on top like Channel 23 in Max Headroom; or perhaps, like the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, in a massive ziggurat that would cover whole square miles worth of territory. Instead, it is sprawled out across a dumpy, nondescript industrial park full of two-story concrete office buildings, indistinguishable from the one that housed the company that made postcards at which my grandfather worked when I was a child.
The Future had style: whether utopian, dystopian, or something in between, it was always imposing, breathtaking, even intimidating. But the future has no style, no sense of the grand or wondrous, no desire (or no ability, or both) to impress. It is so very different from my childhood days at the mall, which felt like The Future, and all the more so because it existed in a time of prosperity and optimism; a time that’s now long gone. And what of the mall these days?
There are a few that are still doing well, mostly those lucky enough to be located in places where they can cater to the bored wives of the elites in the handful of cities that currently represent our centers of power. There’s the Pentagon City Mall in Washington for the wives of congressmen and lobbyists; Valley Fair for the wives of Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires; Garden State Plaza, which caters to Wall Street wives. But these are the exceptions. Many malls that were once beautiful and were filled with the then-prosperous middle class are now occupied by seedy discount stores, and the people to be found there long ago started tending towards the unsavory. Things started changing, and you started to hear of fights at malls, then of people being shot there, and finally of full-scale riots in them – all unthinkable at the time of Galinsky’s photos. And of course many more, like Randall Park, have simply been demolished.
I remember when they used to tell you that when old things were demolished, it was in the name of progress. But what was Randall Park demolished in the name of? What lay beyond it? Was it really progress, and if so, what have we progressed to?
Well, we may not have The Future anymore, but we certainly do have The Current Year. Don’t you know that it’s 2015? That means gay marriage! Women in combat! Even the first rumblings of the normalization of pedophilia! Say what you will about the Classical Marxists of the past – Lenin, Stalin, Mao – but they built massive hydroelectric dams, intercontinental missiles, skyscrapers, and atom bombs. Yet in The Current Year, they and their grand projects have been replaced by the Cultural Marxism of Gramsci, Marcuse, and Alinsky. To the leftists of The Current Year, global warming means we can’t build big impressive things anymore, so now we simply declare the cutting edge to be increasingly degenerate sexual and cultural practices. There is nothing of The Future in The Current Year – any caveman could have smoked dope, had weird sex, or dressed up like a girl.
Is this how The Future dies? And what becomes of us when it does? The Current Year can provide sensuous pleasures and validation for our degeneracy, but didn’t we used to aspire to more than that? America is a modern nation that grew and developed during the Industrial Age; we have always been a people oriented towards The Future. We built steamships and cotton gins and giant radio towers and Santa Fe Streamliners and B-29 bombers and Shelby GT350 Cobras, because these were the things of The Future. We built the Saturn V rocket and then we went to the moon in it. What happens to such a people when they don’t have a Future ahead of them anymore? I suppose we will find out, but I have a feeling that the answer will not give us much to be optimistic about.
As The Bechtloff put it, the future ain’t what it used to be. And it probably won’t ever be again.