Jeffrey Tucker recently wrote an engaging piece on innovation centering on that most quaint of cultural staples, The Jetsons (“Pushing Buttons Like the Jetsons”). In the piece, Tucker aims to illuminate the benefits (and limits) of innovation, but more importantly, he prods us to consider the ways in which we as humans should respond to technological change.
Tucker begins by painting an economist’s portrait of the Jetson family — one that is sure to coax any libertarian into a spell of futuristic fantasy:
The galaxy is their home. Healthcare is a complete free market with extreme customer care. Technology was the best (but of course it still malfunctions, same as today). Business is rivalrous, prosperity is everywhere, and the state largely irrelevant except for the friendly policeman who shows up only every once in a while to check things out.
What Tucker finds particularly intriguing is the way in which the Jetson family is portrayed as accessible and idyllic, despite their drastically modernized surroundings. The family’s wacky inventions surely give them an edge in areas of comfort and convenience, but the use of such technology seems to have little impact on their fundamental wants and wishes. All in all, the Jetsons remain a jolly bunch, and this would probably stay the same if George worked at the salt mines instead of the office.
As Tucker continues:
The whole scene — which anticipated so much of the technology we have today but, strangely, not email or texting — reflected the ethos of time: a love of progress and a vision of a future that stayed on course…It was neither utopian nor dystopian. It was the best of life as we know it projected far into the future. People did not dress in uniforms or obey some dictator on a monitor in their homes. The people in the show were as fashion conscious as any American. Their food was not embedded in pill food. They had the equivalent of fast-food delivery services in their homes. (emphasis added)
This distinction about a society that “stays on course” is what separates the World of the Jetsons from the World of WALL-E, a realm in which humans assume the role of virtual robots, controlled by their possessions, consumed by their leisure, and subsequently doomed to an existence of myopic and self-destructive idleness.
Instead, the World of the Jetsons is one in which human potential is unleashed. There is a “love of progress,” but such a love is not detached from higher responsibilities and does not confuse or pervert the moral order. For the Jetsons, the stuff remains stuff and life moves on, whether that entails personal goals, family development, community engagement, or a relationship with God (one can only hope, George!).
As Tucker explains:
…[D]espite the extraordinary conveniences of life, the essential problems are the same, the human vices documented since the beginning of the written human language. The kids have the same trouble as our kids. “Daughter Judy” is spoiled and pouts too much; “his boy Elroy” gets into trouble; George tries in vain to solve all troubles but is mainly concerned about keeping his job; and “Jane his wife” keeps the home together.
Again, unlike those depraved drones in WALL-E, the Jetsons seem to retain a healthy view of human struggle and engagement. The tools remain tools, allowing the family to build on their relationships and life pursuits rather than fight over who gets first dibs on the water hole (or “equal” dibs, if that’s your poison).
Yet the world of WALL-E remains a real possibility. As modernization continues, we can certainly choose a life of risk, struggle, and reward, leading us to put life first and comfort second (like the Jetsons), but we can also choose a life of security and insulation (although artificial, to be sure), leading us to subvert and dilute our destinies for a more predictable, “comfortable” life. Regardless of the socio-economic system in place, such choices are always ours to make, yet whether we like it or not, those systems will inevitably play a role in either influencing our worldview or controlling the channels to personal discovery.
Thus, when it comes to the systems that guide our progress, we should ask ourselves which is best suited to deliver a version of growth that is not only real and lasting, but also real and healthy — one that maintains a proper balance of self-interest, moral priorities, and consequences.
If we refuse such an approach, opting for a journey guided by coercion, force, and materialistic bickering (“He’s got too much stuff!”), we may indeed meet our material ends, but we will likely find ourselves trapped in the mundane, self-absorbed, and isolationist existence of the World of WALL-E.
Should we opt for the journey guided by freedom, however, we will be sure to gain massive innovative strides both materially andspiritually. Such strides, in the proper framework, will find their fundamental restraint in an overarching and accurate understanding of liberty — one that is well prepared and well equipped to face unceasing challenges and embrace a life of unpredictability and risk.
In such a future, we’ll have gadgets and gizmos aplenty, but we will not be confusing the fruit with the root. These elements — these features of struggle and tension — are the very stuff of progress. Let’s not replace them with the stuff of stuff.