If you can believe it, the show "Mad Men" tells us there was a time when men went to work in hats and ties. Only a couple decades past the carnage of the Second World War, it was a time of ascendant industrial might, new financial reach and flush public money for basic science in the United States. A wealthy middle class emerged. One need only look at public university campuses and their legacy mid-century modern architecture to see where their children were educated.
Because I was born at the very end of that baby boom, and because I love flying and space, the image that always comes to mind about that period are the buzz-cut engineers from the Apollo program. Using slide rules, they built colossal motors, called forth Earth-cleaving fire, sent good and courageous men in gossamer craft to surface of the moon, and returned them, flying under red and white banners, in scorched capsules. An adoring public celebrated.
Mired in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, one could be forgiven for wondering if those times will ever return. Yesterday, reading Robert Krulwich's May commencement speech to the Berkeley Journalism School, re-posted by Ed Young at Discover as "There are Some People who Don't Wait," I thought again of men in hats and ties, of buzz cuts and of national triumph.
"The future," as the science fiction writer William Gibson said several years ago, "is here – it's just not evenly distributed." In fact, futures from here on out may never bear much resemblance to pasts they replace. One would think that the entire last century would have made that lesson clear to one and all. But judging from the angry public tone today, there's a genuine mourning - voiced almost exclusively, I might add, by the people who lived that past - about what's come undone. I guess hurt will do that. The problem is that history never belongs to any one group.
Despite everything, Krulwich is an optimist. So am I.
It's true that today's graduates probably won't have the same job security enjoyed by the engineers that worked on the Apollo program. Ditto for the journalists, as Krulwich reminds us. Perhaps, especially for journalists - hurt more often seeks comfort, not explanations, and the economics of publishing, if not journalism, are lousy.
The good news is that these men and women are more free to create futures for themselves that are as different as they are - more free, mercifully, from News of the World hostage-taking because of who they are - more free to act on an idea, and to accept the consequences or take the bows. That spirit animates the IdeaFestival. That spirit is our inheritance. For a few days in September, Louisville holds a party and the impossible migrates from the headlines and news type, and makes its way magically to a stage and, finally, to our skin. One need only bring a curious and open mind. The goose pimples are free.
The fact is, there will always be room for visionaries, explorers, people undeterred by mad proposals to go to the moon. Elon Musk sold Paypal, and with NASA as a client, is building the rockets and capsules that will replace the Space Shuttle, which, sort of, replaced the Apollo rockets. Look up the SpaceX videos. Like the Apollo splashdowns, they're all on screen.
For every end, there is a beginning. It's like that because we humans will always be curious creatures, unable to set aside our expectation that it can all somehow be better than before. I think that's worth a celebration. Don't you?