The city is changing at warp speed — for better and worse — and there’s nothing we can do to change that, writes Jon Talton.
Lord, I hate the 21st century.
I hate adults dressing as adolescents. I hate social-media lynch mobs, gigs instead of jobs and people sitting in restaurants watching the screens of their devices instead of talking to each other.
The sense of what is appropriate in public has been lost. Algorithms. Men don’t read. Average people covered with tattoos like Melville’s sailors. Those who in the past would have been in the prime of their careers are now obsolete and bratsplained to by their callow young replacements. I hate it all.
EDITOR’S NOTE: It seems the only thing we really can count on these days is change. The most obvious symbols are our thundering construction zones, our rocket-ship housing market — and all the new Seattleites trying to find a way through them. But our jobs, our relationships and the political climate are changing, too.
For 2017, Pacific NW magazine explores the wide-ranging changes in our region through a series of themed stories, kicking off today with this provocative piece by Jon Talton.
We’ll write about shifting institutions and places, and their meaning. We’ll profile people who are effecting change, who are striving to make/keep Seattle a world-class city. We’ll explore homelessness, the divide between rich and poor, and the evolving dynamics of race and diversity.
We made it through a turbulent 2016, and this year promises even more change. We’ll help you make sense of it.
Well, I do love modern dentistry.
It’s not just me. Plenty of people are unhappy with what’s being lost in Seattle’s superheated economic boom, about the cost of being “discovered” and colonized by the Bay Area and the wealthy tech elites.
I think of what a frequent commenter on The Seattle Times, who goes by the handle @nwexplorer, wrote last year about the place a quarter-century ago:
“It was referred to as The Mount Rainier Effect. People put up with lower wages and fewer relative jobs (but could still certainly get one with various different skill levels), because the lower cost of living was proportional to that, and still allowed you to exist here … you also had this outstanding natural beauty practically outside of your door. Twenty minutes, and you were ‘out of town.’ What a concept that is now gone forever …
“There was generally more competent, caring, collaborative and intelligent political leadership here, too. The needs of business and people were more balanced. Newcomers in the last five years have no real concept of what has been done in their name to the land and the residents for their transient benefit, and continues to march on unabated.”
The recent election was a foul-tasting banquet of discontents. In late October, Real Clear Politics’ average of polls had more than 64 percent of respondents saying the country was on the wrong track. Of course, polls are contradictory. A Gallup survey last year showed 85 percent of respondents were satisfied with their personal lives.
Maybe some of us are merely feeling the grumpiness of growing older.
Still, my grandmother, who was born on the frontier in 1889, reveled in the unfolding future, even as her life was hammered by great losses and sadness. She loved air conditioning, television, paper towels and automobiles. She was alive to read about the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903 and watched — on a television! — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step onto the surface of the moon in 1969.
The nation around her was a rising road, as it was for most Americans, even if the 20th century elsewhere was the bloodiest ever recorded.
That century didn’t begin when the calendar ended in 1899. Forces gathering beforehand influence epochs. The “true” beginning somehow captures the spirit of the coming age, the sure knowledge that an irrecoverable break with the past has been made.
For the 20th century, one can think of such markers as Queen Victoria’s death (1901); the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk; the sinking of the Titanic (1912); or, my pick, the First World War (1914).
Watching our century, I nominate the 9/11 attacks, our witless lashing out in unnecessary Middle East wars and the Great Recession. But who knows? Future historians (if they exist) might point to China entering the World Trade Organization in 2001. Or the surprise election of Donald Trump to the presidency.
Wherever it began, something’s happening here and can’t be stopped.
Of course, change is the only constant, and there is nothing new under the sun. Flux has been the focus of philosophical and scientific inquiry going back centuries.
But for anyone older than 35, a big page has turned in our lifetimes; a fundamental break has been made. We’re over Niagara Falls in a barrel. And there’s no going back.
IN 1970, ALVIN TOFFLER, assisted uncredited by his wife, Heidi, wrote a book called “Future Shock.” It sold 6 million copies and popularized many phrases and concepts that are now familiar.
Among them: “information overload,” the “throwaway society,” “overchoice,” transient relationships with people and organizations, and the “third wave” of societal development into a “super industrial society” (the first wave was agriculture, and the second was the Industrial Revolution).
Some of the predictions didn’t come true, such as the end of the market economy, eclipse of cities and undersea colonies. And others only rhymed with the real future. They foresaw clothes we wear once and throw away. That hasn’t come to pass, but the “cheap fashion” model, made possible by sweatshops in places such as Bangladesh, comes uncomfortably close.
In other areas, the Tofflers were visionaries. The “third wave” would depend on knowledge rather than merely making things, and especially be defined by fast-paced technological advances.
“Technology feeds on itself. Technology makes more technology possible,” they wrote.
And, “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”
But there was a cost. The Tofflers wrote, “Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”
The book came out at a time when rotary-dial landline telephones were still ubiquitous, television was mostly three networks, and computers were enormous and very expensive.
The Tofflers went on to write other books, but none carried the thunderclap of the first. How well has “Future Shock” held up?
Writing on the Columbus Futurists website more than 40 years after the book was published, David Grant stated, Toffler “totally ignored the existence of economic, demographic and political forces that might be driving changes in personal behavior and society at large. Most damningly, Toffler used and misused cherry-picked anecdotes, studies and facts to support his own broad theses and to express his own unsupported personal opinions.”
Still, the Tofflers were on to something, anticipating the digital age, globalization, the severing of traditions and connections, as well as the splintering of society into fragmented “subcults.”
EIGHT YEARS BEFORE “Future Shock,” Seattle offered a much more optimistic vision of where we were going. The Seattle World’s Fair was officially called the Century 21 Exposition.
This was the height of the Cold War, when the Soviets seemed to be leading the space race, and science was assuming a prime position in American life. Jet City intended to present a face to the world of hopeful scientific progress.
With the iconic Space Needle, futuristic monorail, Boeing Spacearium and Minoru Yamasaki’s Space Age-gracious U.S. Science Pavilion (today’s Pacific Science Center), “thirty-eight years ahead of schedule, Seattle entered the 21st Century,” as HistoryLink put it.
Or an imagined one, at least.
A person visiting the fair in Seattle in 1962 no doubt would have been dazzled. But stepping out into the real world, that person would have found a place very recognizable from a half-century before. Jet airliners were breathtaking, but they were also a natural progression.
The same was true of almost everything else, including norms, morals and a common culture. The only tectonic shift was the specter of nuclear Armageddon hanging over us — President John F. Kennedy canceled his visit to the World’s Fair because of the Cuban missile crisis.
Outside the fair grounds and beyond Boeing, the Puget Sound area was also familiar from a half-century before. It was still very dependent on “old” industries, from railroads to canneries, paper mills and timber. South Lake Union was industrial, laced by railroad tracks.
Seaborne cargo was mostly loaded and unloaded by brute force and basic equipment. The first container operation on the West Coast didn’t open until 1964, at the Ames Terminal (now Terminal 5) at the Port of Seattle.
The city was an architectural confection of many styles. The beautiful but rundown Hotel Seattle was demolished in 1961 for a ghastly “sinking ship” parking garage, but the loss added urgency to a historic preservation movement.
Those activists already were busy, however. Interstate 5 plowed through the city’s heart, severing First Hill and Capitol Hill from downtown and South Lake Union, and destroying irreplaceable historic buildings. The biggest close-to-home change people would see in the coming years was suburbanization, not colonies on the moon and Mars.
Even so, unlike so many cities, Seattle remained strong, downtown was loved and well-patronized, and the neighborhoods mostly consisted of single-family houses. Most businesses were small and locally owned.
And all around was reason for long-term optimism. The middle class was growing, and minorities were beginning to enjoy the wider rights that most whites took for granted. A liberal consensus that began in the 1930s still dominated American politics, as shown by President Lyndon Johnson’s drubbing of conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election.
IF THE CHANGES in the 50-plus years before the Seattle World’s Fair were arguably linear for Americans — heavily tilted to improvements in trends and technologies already in place — the experience of the half-century that followed the event is mixed.
The convulsions came fast and never stopped.
Kennedy was assassinated a year after the Seattle World’s Fair. His brother Bobby was murdered in 1968. So was Martin Luther King Jr.
America’s cities were shaken by riots. White flight and suburbanization pulled Americans apart, with “the big sort” placing people with the same politics and worldviews in self-segregating communities.
The Vietnam War shattered the liberal consensus, replacing it with ever-sharpening political divisions. The Watergate scandal and resignation of President Richard Nixon marked an ongoing erosion of trust in institutions. So did waves of criminality in big business, which got only bigger and more politically influential.
The “Reagan Revolution” gave birth to a robust conservative movement predicated on the principle that “government is the problem.” Its worship of laissez-faire economics was emboldened by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even the Chinese Communists became capitalists.
American wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq left the country in a permanent state of conflict, and not only in other countries. “Mass shooting” entered the lexicon, including slaughters at schools and movie theaters. By the 2016 election, the nation was more divided than at any time since the eve of the Civil War.
Few of the marquee promises of the World’s Fair came to pass.
Instead, the United States now depends on Russia to launch American astronauts to a space station in the same low-Earth orbit that both countries already had conquered in the early 1960s. We never went back to the moon after the last Apollo mission in 1972.
In Seattle, the monorail never turned into a widespread transportation system. Voters turned down a subway system in 1970, setting the metropolitan area back decades in mass transit even as it continued to grow and spread out.
The decade before the turn of the century saw the rise of the internet and World Wide Web, the Information Superhighway. Now, carrying around more computing power in our cellphones than existed in the Apollo spacecraft, we are bombarded by information, distractions and an ever-coarsening conversation.
America lost 40 percent of its journalists after 2007. The “post-fact” society allows people to believe what they wish, no matter how disconnected from reality.
The two biggest genuine facts are climate change and a planet arguably past its carrying capacity, with 7 billion people. It had 1.65 billion in 1900.
Look behind almost any major global crisis, whether the Syrian civil war, mass migrations of refugees, increasing extinction of species, rising sea levels and temperatures, or the spread of exotic diseases, and you’ll find these two facts at the root.
The digital age, barely imagined in 1962, has been very good to Seattle — too good for some. Despite losing Boeing’s headquarters, we are one of the world’s leading technology centers, with two of the five most valuable companies, Amazon and Microsoft. We’re more prosperous than most American cities and benefiting from the “back to the city” movement led by millennials who disdain suburbia.
All this has come at a cost. Online shopping and huge companies with commensurate power in the market have killed off many of the local shops that made Seattle special. Dull glass-skinned towers have replaced architectural variety.
Inequality is sharp everywhere in America, but it’s made more pronounced here by the city’s loud progressive politics. The hardening of the Republican Party into a far-right tribe has taken away an important counterweight, the old moderate Republican pragmatists.
They are lacking in important civic issues. Take “homelessness,” a murky catchall word that didn’t exist in 1962, now a widespread problem. Is our “homeless crisis” actually made worse by “Freeattle” policies that attract this population from outside Seattle and Washington? It’s a question worth asking. But to do so in Seattle’s left-wing echo chamber gets you shouted down as speaking from “privilege.”
The city and parts of the metro area are not affordable to people with middle-wage jobs. In many cases, those jobs have gone away, sent to other countries or automated. Global forces are at work that leave individuals feeling helpless; disoriented; and, in many cases, angry.
ARE WE LIVING “Future Shock”?
Alvin Toffler died last year. Heidi Toffler was alive at this writing. The management consultant group they founded, Toffler Associates, says it is rooted in the two “whose work foreshadowed the sweeping effects of rapid technology development on people, businesses and governments.”
A cynic is tempted to say that the most altruistic visions end up as moneymaking ventures.
But whatever you call it, someone living today is buffeted by fast-moving flux in a way that stands out. One says “never before in history” at his or her peril. But it’s certainly different from the life my grandmother lived, or the future imagined here in 1962.
And yet, for all the discontents, Seattle is so blessed, especially for a place on fault lines and with a pet volcano. Other cities would kill for what we have. Seattleites do love this place. That alone will make our arguments about change unending.