From the Jetsons to Black Mirror: When Did the Future Go from Utopia to Dystopia?

Technology

From the Jetsons to Black Mirror: When Did the Future Go from Utopia to Dystopia?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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ow that we’re all grown up, we divide ourselves along many lines: bhakt or librandu, chai or coffee, Mumbai or Delhi. But back in the ’90s, we first learned to wage these wars on Cartoon Network. If you were the nostalgic, dinosaur-obsessed type, you were into The Flintstones — which, with its foot-powered cars and woolly mammoth showers, made for a solid half-hour of entertainment. For the more forward-thinking eight-year-olds, however, there was The Jetsons. While the show actually ran through the ’80s, reruns were ubiquitous even in the early noughties.

If the Flintstones gave us a glimpse into the prehistoric past, the Jetsons showed us what life could someday be. For a generation that lived in fear of the devastating Y2K bug shutting down the internet, or mom finding our MSN Messenger chats on the family computer, we already dreamed of a digital future every day. Technology was progressing faster than ever before, and we became accustomed to our constantly changing reality. Where would the boundaries of this brave new world be pushed by the time we were grown up?

Obviously, the answer lay with the Jetsons — a typical, 20th-century nuclear family who happened to have flying cars and a mechanical maid called Rosie the Robot. Dad George Jetson goes off to work each day at the office, while mom Jane is a devoted housewife who is part of a women’s club; daughter Judy is a teenage girl who only cares about writing in her secret digital diary and talking on her hi-tech phone; and son Elroy is a scientific prodigy. (Plus, Jane was only 18 on the show when she had the couple’s first child, while George was 25 — an age gap that we now consider barely legal and fairly creepy.)

Clearly, the Jetsons were only a model of progress on the surface. They fed us the same old stories, complete with a patriarchal family and plenty of sexist stereotypes, that we’d seen a thousand times before. Perhaps that’s why their future was so easy to envision as our own: All the cool, futuristic tech was just window dressing for a familiar world.

So it was a revelation when we grew up and realised technology has a far greater impact on our lives than the Jetsons told us. The future is here, and turns out, it’s a lot scarier than Rosie the kindly Robot Maid. Instead, we have to deal with the very immediate prospect of robots taking our jobs, and inevitably, the world. We imagine how the lines between person and machine will blur thanks to super lifelike humanoid bots, who look and sound just like us. And on top of that, we have to worry about whether (perish the thought!) they’re smarter than us.

All the cool, futuristic tech was just window dressing for a familiar world.
So it was a revelation when we grew up and realised technology has a far greater impact on our lives than the Jetsons told us.

No wonder our approach to technology in pop culture has swung from the unremarkable Jetsons on ordinary television, to web series like Black Mirror, Mr Robot, Altered Carbon — or A.I.SHA, about a self-learning artificial intelligence assistant. Now in its third season, the show revolves around the titular robot A.I.SHA, who falls in love with her creator, and is determined to trap him by any means necessary. A.I.SHA has his girlfriend killed, hacks into networks to spy on him, and mines data to use against him. When you consider how Judy Jetson spent all her time chasing boys, A.I.SHA’s subversion of the trope into an omniscient, obsessive stalker would be hilarious if it weren’t so scary. Just like the specsy, nerdy hacker who featured in ensemble comedies morphed into the shadowy activist with a personality disorder in Mr Robot.

Of course, unlike the Jetsons, A.I.SHA and Mr Robot are definitely not recommended for children. But the differences go beyond the intended age group of viewers. The rose-tinted, regressive portrayals on the Jetsons would never fly even in a kids’ cartoon today — and my younger cousins are a hell of a lot more pessimistic about The Future than I ever was. The issues we see on Black Mirror — of a digital surveillance dystopia, how social media can bend reality, and most recently, creating your own algorithm based on choices — are no longer theoretical. And the Jetsons will never be more than a relic of how a naive, primitive society taught kids about the 21st century.

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