Glamour And The Future: Why Do We Miss Flying Cars But Not Robot Maids?

Space colony suburbia outside picnic
It looks like suburbia, but it still represents escape.

In my new Bloomberg View column, I criticize the trendy denigration of technological progress that doesn't solve "big problems" like going to Mars. Here's an excerpt:

In speeches, interviews and articles, [Peter] Thiel decries what he sees as the country's lack of significant innovations. "When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains," he wrote last year in National Review. "Consider the most literal instance of non­acceleration: We are no longer moving faster."

Such warnings serve a useful purpose. Political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits. New technologies as diverse as hydraulic fracturing and direct-to-consumer genetic testing (neither mentioned by Thiel) attract instant and predictable opposition. As Thiel writes, "Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare."

But the current funk says less about economic or technological reality than it does about the power of a certain 20th-century technological glamour: all those images of space flight, elevated highways and flying cars, with their promise of escape from mundane existence into a better, more exciting place called The Future. These visions imprinted themselves so vividly on the public's consciousness that they left some of the smartest, most technologically savvy denizens of the 21st century blind to much of the progress we actually enjoy.

Read the full column here.

The column draws directly on ideas I developed in The Future and Its Enemies. But, as I was writing it, I also thought about what my forthcoming book The Power of Glamour might suggest about why some old visions of the future are more compelling than others: Why do we miss space travel and flying cars but not robot maids (or robot dogs), "telesense," meals-in-a-pill, or all those jumpsuits? Why don't we appreciate the microwave ovens, synthetic fibers, or artificial hips?

I think it has to do with the promise of escape and transformation, which is essential to all forms of glamour. Glamour always allows the audience to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances.

A robot maid might improve your life but it wouldn't fundamentally change it. You'd still be yourself and the world around you would seem more-or-less the same. Except in a harried housewife, the idea of a robot maid does not excite longing. Transportation, by contrast, always implies movement and transcendence, all the more when it's fast and high. That's why space travel—like cars and trains and planes and ships and horses before it—has such potential for glamour.

I've always been fascinated by the images NASA and others used to sell the idea of space colonies in the 1970s. They always remind me of the San Fernando Valley as you come over the Sepulveda Pass from West L.A. (or, to be more accurate, the first time I saw that view it reminded me of the space colony pictures). They're selling real estate, with the same promise that every house stager uses: This could be your new, better life. ("I could be happy here.") All you have to do is this case, to outer space.

[Cross-posted from]

Encountering The Sublime

Kevin-daggWhen I e-mailed Scottish sculptor Kevin Dagg that my wife and I were thinking of visiting Scotland, he sent this recent photograph of himself hiking to encourage us to come. It worked, although we booked our visit for warmer weather in May and June.

This extraordinary location is the Munro (a mountain in Scotland over 3,000 feet high) Stob Ghahbar in Glen Orchy. Many Scottish peaks are connected by long ridges, and in this photo such a ridge disappears into the clouds.

When we encounter vast, wild beauty in nature, we are often struck by a sense of the sublime. In his History of Beauty Umberto Eco has a chapter on the sublime, and in it he quotes first century AD writer Psuedo-Longinus describing sublime beauty as:

something that enriches the thoughts, something that is hard, if not impossible to gainsay, something that leaves an enduring indelible memory.

According to Eco, Psuedo-Longinus is first writer to discuss the sublime, and in relationship to art he spoke of the sublime as the expression of grand and noble passions that brings “into play the emotional involvement of both the creator and the perceiver of the work of art.” Similarly, it is an ongoing theme of DeepGlamour that the responses of the perceiver are crucial to the perception of glamour, just as they are to the perception of the sublime.

Looking at this image I am also reminded that Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that “You can never step into the same river twice.”  This ridge has probably existed longer than humans, yet Kevin will never be able to experience it in exactly the same way again. He can hike here again, but the snow, the clouds, the weather, and Kevin himself will inevitably be slightly different. Sublime beauty in nature can sometimes evoke both a sense of nature as long-lasting, and an awareness that our experiences are brief glimpses of a transitory, ever-changing world.

[Photograph by Gareth Overton. Used by permission.]

Exulting In The Moment

Oregon-pacific-sunsetRecently I sat in a rental house on the Oregon coast watching the sun set on the Pacific in a magical array of oranges and blues. Adding to the magical aura was a girl of about 15 whom I had first noticed as we were driving back to catch the sunset. She had been running along the road in long easy strides, wearing her track-team colors.

Now, as the sun dropped to the horizon, she was sprinting up the hill on the road beside the house. Shortly past the house she turned and slowly jogged down, taking short, prancing steps to let her heart rate slow down. At the bottom of the hill she turned in a tight circle and once again sprinted up the hill in long powerful strides. I stopped counting after the eighth sprint of her solitary routine.

There was something immensely satisfying about watching this impressive display of self-discipline. Perhaps, thanks to Title IX, she hopes to compete in track all the way through college, maybe even on a scholarship. Perhaps she just loves to run, and running itself provides some kind of harmony and order to her daily routine, perhaps even to her life.

In any case, I was grateful to her for adding to the magic of a September evening. Her routine seemed nothing like some Sisyphean ordeal. Instead, watching her reminded me of seeing the exuberant exertions of a young animal discovering the physical power of its body and simply exulting in feeling that power in motion. I had felt much the same pleasure watching two small children run with their dogs on the beach that morning.

To observe someone exulting in the moment can be almost as pleasurable as feeling such exhilaration yourself. That morning my wife and I (both 60-somethings) had donned full-body wet suits, and, with the help of an expert surfer, had had our first experiences riding waves on a surf board. Making our first runs lying prone on the board, feeling the power of the ocean, even taking a few body-tumbling spills, was joyfully thrilling. 

In the 19th-century, in the conclusion to his The Renaissance Walter Pater wrote (to the great displeasure of religious conservatives): “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life....Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us in the brilliancy of their gifts is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”

[Oregon sunset photo by Anne Hornyak. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

Glamour May Look Effortless, But Maintenance Is Required

Always glamorous real estate sign
On a recent visit to New York, I snapped this photo with my dumb phone. (The low-res quality actually makes it look a little more glamorous than it did in real life.) It's a perfect example of why declaring something "glamorous" doesn't make it so. If you can't even manage to keep up your sign, why should we expect the building to be any better?

Here's another example, a screen shot of the website for the then-newly remodeled Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai. I was looking at the website while planning a trip to look for glamour in Shanghai. This carelessness convinced me not to look for it at the Peninsula.

Peninsula Hotel Shanghai website Glamour misspelled

Sharing Space With Wide-bodied Passengers

Super-sized On a recent Southwest Airlines flight to Oakland on a tall, obese man sat down next to me. He was not morbidly obese—he could squeeze into his seat with both arm rests in place—but he did overlap his seat enough that I realized that I would have difficulty avoiding contact with him. I had gotten up early that morning, so I crossed my arms, moved as far as I could toward my wife’s seat, and managed to sleep most of the flight. Near the end of the flight my obese neighbor raised the armrest between us to get more comfortable. But he courteously took care to avoid imposing on my space any more than his bulk forced him to.

As humans we desire a certain amount of personal space, and on many occasions we will wait for the next elevator rather than crowd into a tightly-packed group of strangers. Having someone stand too close to us can feel like a form of intimidation, no matter what the person’s size. I can remember three occasions in which short, petite women made me uncomfortable by standing too close to me during casual conversations. In one case it was a colleague’s wife, and it was impossible to look down at her without being distracted by the cleavage being displayed by her provocatively low-cut dress. A petite woman once confessed to me that she sometimes liked to intimidate large women by standing very close to them. She was aware that being close to her tiny, svelte figure sometimes made larger women feel awkward and huge.

If we feel that someone is invading our personal space in an uncomfortable way, we instinctly try to move away from them. On an airplane our ability to move is limited, and the growing obesity rate means that we are increasingly likely to find ourselves sharing seating space with individuals who are too large for a single seat. Film director Kevin Smith created publicity for himself by berating Southwest for denying him a seat on one of their flights. He claimed that he could have fit into a seat with the armrests down, but as I learned on the flight to Oakland, this does not guarantee that the passenger’s bulk will not spill over onto the adjacent seat.

Obese-passenger If the situation is extreme (as illustrated by this photo taken of a unresolved boarding situation), being pinned under the weight of another person can prove injurious. In 2002, after being pinned to the outside wall during an 11-hour Virgin Airlines flight by a grossly overweight woman, another woman passenger required hospitalization. Angered what she felt was the airline’s calloused attitude toward her ordeal, the squashed woman threatened to sue, and won a £12,000 settlement. During the investigation into the incident, the airline discovered that the obese woman’s thin husband had booked himself into the row behind his wife, which suggested that he was fully aware that sitting next to her on a long flight would be an ordeal.

Given the rising rates of obesity around the world, unless airlines find ways to deal with grossly overweight passengers (such as the purchase of an extra seat), both the obese passengers and their thinner neighbors are increasingly likely to find themselves in uncomfortable social situations. The thought that you might find yourself on a long international flight seated next to a stranger whose bulk spills onto your seat is a distinctly unglamorous image.

[“Super Size Airline” copyrighted by Flickr user Thomas Boucher and used by permission.]

From The Archives: Travel Posters, Glamour, And Iconoclasm

Reminded by one of Roger Ebert's tweets that yesterday was Philip Larkin's birthday, I thought the occasion would be a good excuse, even a day late, for resurrecting a post featuring one of his poems. "Come to Sunny Prestatyn" is so deceptively plain-spoken that you can easily miss the rhyme scheme: a beautiful example of carefully crafted effortlessness.

Isle of man poster british railways 

This poster, up for auction next week from which sold for $2,160 at Swann Galleries, calls to mind a different (and possibly fictional) British tourism poster from the same era, the one in Philip Larkin's poem “Sunny Prestatyn.” The poem perfectly captures both the commercial glamour of travel posters and the urge to puncture the illusion.

Come to Sunny Prestatyn 
Laughed the girl on the poster, 
Kneeling up on the sand 
In tautened white satin. 
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a 
Hotel with palms 
Seemed to expand from her thighs and 
Spread breast-lifting arms.

She was slapped up one day in March. 
A couple of weeks, and her face 
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed; 
Huge tits and a fissured crotch 
Were scored well in, and the space 
Between her legs held scrawls 
That set her fairly astride 
A tuberous cock and balls

Autographed Titch Thomas, while 
Someone had used a knife 
Or something to stab right through 
The moustached lips of her smile. 
She was too good for this life. 
Very soon, a great transverse tear 
Left only a hand and some blue. 
Now Fight Cancer is there.

With its aggressive cynicism, the graffiti destroys not only the model’s beauty but the poster’s promise of escape to a sunny, joyful world where satin stays taut and white. By defacing the poster, making the portrait ugly and ridiculous, the vandals remind viewers that the picture is an illusion, an image “too good for this life.”

To buy Philip Larkin's complete works, go to Collected Poems on Amazon.

If You Had The Money, What...?

John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel, was already captivated by automobiles by age five. He knew the names and model years of all the cars on the road. He would sit behind the wheel of his father’s parked 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook, and instead of being in the mountains of West Virginia, he would look at his father’s maps of Colorado and Utah and imagine himself driving in the wild West.

As an adult, John loved to watch documentaries and didn't think enough were available on TV, so in 1982 he founded the Cable Educational Network and, three years later, the Discovery Channel. Over time, while doing work that he loves as chairman of Discovery Communications, he and his wife Maureen have become wealthy.

Keep in mind that most entrepreneurial ventures fail, but imagine success. Imagine yourself with a multi-million dollar net worth. Would you imagine continuing to work, starting new ventures, and spending some of your earnings on your personal interests? Or do you see yourself leading a life of leisure, perhaps traveling the world on some fashionable circuit?

John and Maureen Hendricks have realized the first fantasy: Their interests and personalities haven't changed. They aren't flashy, and the luxuries they spend their money on aren't designed to impress the world. John, like many entrepreneurs, continues to work hard at various ventures, and both he and Maureen are involved in charitable activities, including establishing two foundations. But their wealth lets them live the dream of indulging their lifelong passions.

With extra money to spend, John Hendricks began to collect autos in earnest. And to share his love of automobiles, he created the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum to exhibit his growing collection of more than 40 vehicles. This beautifully designed museum provides both an educational and aesthetic experience.  John’s statement about the museum reveals his intense passion for automotive design.

The video above shows the prototype of legendary auto designer Harley Earl’s 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 on display at the museum. General Motors decided against producing the F-88 car partly because they were concerned it would compete with the Corvette. Only four prototypes were built and only this one survives. Hendricks purchased it at auction in 2005 for $3.24 million.

The Hendricks's shared love for the American Southwest led to their latest business venture, Gateway Canyons, a luxurious resort in a remote, spectacularly beautiful location in Western Colorado. The resort is now open after Phase I development, and includes the Experius Academy, a retreat for “introducing the most curious learners to the most passionate experts.”

Maureen Hendricks is avid quilter and art-quilt collector, and the Gateway Canyons facilities display numerous large art quilts, many of them by Katie Pasquini Masopust. Katie used to hold an annual quilt symposium Alegre Retreat in Santa Fe, which Maureen attended each year until rising venue expenses made it too difficult for Katie continue the symposium. The Gateway Canyon resort has given Maureen a way both to enjoy herself and to support other enthusiasts. With the resort’s support, Alegre Retreat now holds its workshops there. Staying at a luxurious resort to study and interact with some of the world’s best-known art quilters remains an expensive retreat for the participants, but Maureen’s passion for quilting is so strong that whether or not the quilting retreat becomes profitable is not her primary concern. She wants the aesthetic rewards of the Alegre Retreat to continue to be a part of her life.

Meeting them when my wife taught at Alegre, I was impressed at how inner-directed John and Maureen Hendricks are. If we fantasize about how we might spend multi-millions if we had them, would our choices likewise remain true to our preexisting passions? (Reflecting on this makes me consider my own passions.) Or do our fantasies revolve about living a life of luxurious leisure dictated by the images we see in fashion and travel magazines? (Such images definitely have appeal for me.) What about you? Imagining that you had some extra millions to spend, DG invites you to comment on how you might spend them.

What We Forget About The Era Of Glamorous Air Travel

Pan Am breakfast in bedThis photo appeared in Sunday's NYT business section, as part of a photo feature on the lost glamour of air travel. (The feature also appears as an online slide show.) The feature makes the important point that air travel is both more common and much more affordable than it used to be: "In 1940, passenger planes in the United states carried only 3 million people, compared with 17 million in 1950 and about 650 million in 2008."

Like many of the images that create our idea of glamorous air travel, this photo is staged. It's a marketing image created by Pan Am, which probably featured a mother and children to emphasize the safety of flying to a public that still thought of aviation as dangerous. But even a staged photo can reveal an unacknowledged flaw concealed in our glamorous image of that lost era.

Why do they need beds?

For the same reason that international airlines compete to offer more and more luxurious beds to their premium-class passengers: Because the flight takes a long time. Only in the case of the Pan Am photo, the flight is a domestic one. And bumpy.

I wrote about the lost glamour of air travel (and tested one of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class beds) in a 2007 Atlantic column.

Bare-foot Fantasy?

TravelerI drove a friend to a podiatrist appointment, and one of the magazines in the waiting room was this December 2006 issue of Traveler. I was struck by the strange photograph on the cover. Though it is daylight, the model is wearing a brightly colored evening gown, and is posing on the steps of the grounds of this estate in bare feet.

 Though an image showing a bare foot seemed fitting for the office of a foot doctor, I felt that there must be a more romantic advertising purpose involved.

Traveler-foot The cover mentions fairy-tale Europe, so perhaps the image is supposed to make the viewer think of Cinderella. If so, the story has been distorted because the model’s foot looks fairly large. Feeling that the model’s proportions seemed slightly odd, I cut the page apart to see if the image had been split apart just slightly to make more room for the banner. To my eye, the lines of the skirt and her bodily proportions looked more natural when I moved the bottom portion up about the height of a step, so I suspect the cover image was manipulated a little in Photoshop. (Check out Lady Gaga’s shoulder on this cover photo to see an obvious and bizarre Photoshop manipulation.)

Whether the image was manipulated or not, I don’t get it. If women find this image appealing, I can’t quite understand why. As a man I can’t image going around in a tuxedo in bare feet, not even as a fantasy. Ladies, is there something about this image that appeals to some deep inner sense of princess? I’m both baffled and curious.

Obsolete Travel Glamour

Berchtesgaden Das Kur-Cafe Kgf Villa 

Notes the catalog:

Situated in the majestic Bavarian Alps, near the Austrian border, Berchtesgaden's reputation took a drastic turn for the worse in the 1920s, when the mountainous area became a popular Nazi high command retreat. Prior to that the region was an upscale holiday destination and resort, as evidenced by this Art Deco image of a couple at the “Königliche Villa” (Royal Villa,) an elegant and popular spa.

Finally, this 1957 poster captures a bit of Jet Age cosmopolitanism: the United Nations building as an exciting New York tourist attraction.

United Airlines New York United Nations 

The building is now undergoing a $2 billion renovation to bring it up to building-code standards and improve energy efficiency. Those repairs may remove the building's asbestos and improve its fire safety, but they won’t bring back that midcentury glamour.