oredom informed the adult goals of my 1960s boyhood. Ocean liner builder followed dinosaur expert, after which came fireman and jet fighter pilot. I went to airports to watch planes take off and land. Daydreams put me in the cockpit of an X-15 swooping through Nimbus clouds whose bulbous shapes I’d memorized from comic books. My mental cinematography colored in a pined-for yonder that black-and-white newsreels omitted.
Memories of this cobalt hankering resurfaced recently when I saw photographs of Space Shuttles being piggybacked into Washington, D.C. and New York City retirement atop fat Boeing 747s. The media-staged farewell came only 31 years after the Shuttle’s first launch, an abbreviated lifespan for a once-ambitious machine. The SST, or supersonic transport, whose only commercial model was the needle-nosed Anglo-French Concorde (London to Washington in three hours), met a similar fate. The first Concorde flew in 1976 and the last 27 years later, closing out a brief but intense flirtation with supersonic travel that was ultimately undone by economics.
The Concorde was a gas-guzzling rocket plane only the rich could afford. The rakish jet’s only major accident, a catastrophic Paris crash in 2000, yielded death-knell litigation. The Shuttle instead went the way of post-Cold War budget cuts and diminished public interest. The 2003 Columbia disaster, which came at the height of terrorism mania, stigmatized NASA as a collective bad parent to its astronauts. Spectacular images of Mars and the universe’s other vital organs as taken by unmanned craft and supplemented by voyeuristic digital effects would have to suffice, and they do.
This partly explains the New York Times‘ sarcastic coverage of the Shuttle prototype Endeavor’s 747 flight to New York, on its way to a permanent spot on the deck of a decommissioned carrier: “In short, an antique airplane is carrying an antique spacecraft … where it will wind up on the deck of an antique warship.”
Up’s spell is out, speed with it, at least as they pertain to the wild blue yonder. The conquistador focus that the Cold War politicized into patriotism, with space leading the way, has been tamely conceded to devices whose instant animation unwittingly fills in the mysteries on which flights of fancy depend.
Fantasy-lovers can enter contrived dimensions in which firemen, pilots, dinosaurs, and warriors are screened to life in games that reset mortality on command. Mass imaging (not imagining) is part of a revised virility that in the extreme dispenses with purposeful compass headings and averts the complications of direct social interaction.
The high-tech intelligence once focused on Shuttle and Concorde, goal-oriented machines, now serves up prefabricated reveries. This on-demand surrealism is slowly changing the tone of boy dreaming, and of boys themselves, whose indolent, Tom Sawyer mischief is now at the mercy of smart machines mocked as gadgets or gizmos in the days when the production and sale of so-called intelligent devices seemed practically unthinkable.
Bored boyish time spent eccentrically imagining the sounds of speed or the feel of space is now the property of a kind of assisted daydreaming in which avatar-management is the accomplishment of record. Impressionable boys conform to software fantasies they have no role in articulating. Connectivity resolves most boredom with accelerated puberty doing the rest.
Chade-Meng Teng, a high-level Google manager, recently wrote a book about the ups and downs of the wired world in which he referred to “interpersonal intelligence” as “black belt territory,” a euphemistic way of saying that the digital generation’s deepest challenge was translating its talented self-absorption into a winning and communicative real-world personality. Two decades of assisted dreaming and prompts have clearly weakened the richness of unassisted make-believe, once considered the backbone of character and personality.
At age 10, given a choice between staying up late to watch Gemini 5 (a tiny blip in the southwestern sky) and staying in my room to invent digital worlds, I might well have chosen the HD planet Christopher. Asked to pick between the X-15 of my mind’s eye (“seen” from my favorite tree branch) and a 3D McShip on screen or tablet, I might have picked iClouds.
But when surrogate landscapes begin imagining on youth’s behalf, occupying adrenalin reserves once at the service of incidental ingenuity and unpredictable flights of fancy, the human brief requires some basic rewriting. A generation weaned on TV dinner fancies will almost invariably contain fewer and fewer members eager to take verbal and intellectual risks whose outcomes aren’t predetermined.
Those who do take the time to look “up” instead of “in” or “around” will do so only briefly. And daydreaming’s bigness, a boyish book full of tall tales and crazy schemes, risks becoming the saddest antique of all.