Sunday, April 1, 2012

Death By Future (or, Struck by an Auto in 1908)

On Saturday, October 31, 1908, 71-year-old Duane Carrier died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident near the corner of Main Street and Leroy Avenue in Buffalo, New York. It’s unclear from Carrier’s death certificate if he was in the car or an unfortunate pedestrian, though we might assume, at a time when few Americans had yet to actually ride in an automobile, that an elderly retired farmer might have simply stepped off the curb into the oncoming path of the future.

Carrier was born in January 1837 and spent much of his life tending a dairy and fruit farm outside of Buffalo.  Imagine, if you will, a young Duane--two decades before the American Civil War--being told his fortune: You will live a long life, your son will go on to world acclaim, but you will die one day when over a ton of horseless rolling metal with a 177-cubic-inch front-mounted inline four-cylinder en bloc engine cuts you down on a street in Buffalo.  Now, go back to your plowing and prosper.  

I’m describing, of course, a Model T Ford, which first rolled off the assembly line the month before Carrier’s death in 1908.  As the first affordable car in history, it is at least one likely accomplice in his demise.

This was a "machine in the garden" moment of the most tragic kind, the rising star of 20th-century industry and mass consumerism plowing into a 19th-century farmer.   It was also one of those surreal moments when a person was cut down by something that simply did not exist--was pure fantasy--at the time of his birth.  Death by future.



In 1884, Mark Twain penned his famous scene of Huck and Jim’s raft suddenly colliding with a steamboat in the dark of a Mississippi River night.  Steam power at sea was a 19th-century innovation just barely under control, and the cause of many a death by future.   Between 1825 and 1830, for example, 42 exploding steamboat boilers killed 273 Americans.  One observer wrote (ironically in 1837, the year of Carrier’s birth): “We have become the most careless, reckless, headlong people on the face of the earth.”


In another way, of course, 71-year-old Duane Carrier had beaten all mortality odds by 1908 and lived far into his countrymen's future.  At birth, he might have expected to live into his mid-30s; having survived childhood, he could have expected to live to almost 47 years old. When he died, Duane had surpassed the life expectancy of an American man living in 2000.  It did not make the 1908 event any less tragic, but if you must be struck down by the future, it’s nice to know that you lived well beyond your present.   

War reminds us that the arrival of the future can, indeed, come in the form of high speed collision.  In 1346 at the Battle of Crécy, the English longbow pierced the armor of routed French knights, an event historians now see as the end to chivalric warfare and a giant leap into the future.  The gatling gun, patented in 1862, wrecked havoc on the Civil War battlefield of those old enough to be its father.  Likewise, the 1916 Sopwith Camel cut down men in WWI who might not have believed when they were young that man would ever fly.

Beyond technology, the future kills in other ways.  Gaetan Dugas, the infamous (and now disputed) “Patient Zero,” was born in 1953, well over a decade before the first hint of the HIV/AIDS virus was detected.  (The HIV/AiDS epidemic had an impact on the mortality of adult men aged 25-44 in the early 1990s, but peaked in 1995 with the introduction of new antiviral treatments.)  Given what little I know about evolutionary biology, succumbing to some disease that only recently appeared (see the bird flu controversy here) seems like a more or less likely way for many of us to die in the future.  (A morbid thought, I know, but anyone see Contagion?)  Of course, there are those areas of America where parental anxiety over vaccines is so great that we’ve now created pockets of unvaccinated children susceptible to the deadly diseases of earlier centuries--meaning human beings are still fully capable of dying of the past as well as the future.  Dying of the present, so to speak, means diseases of the heart, cancers and strokes, with only Alzheimer’s becoming a major new killer in the top ten from 1980-2000.


Given a choice, would you rather die of the past, present or future?
For many years science fiction had robots turning on humans, causing death and destruction.  Then, like Colossus:The Forbin Project and HAL of 2001, it turned out it was really our computers that were going to do us in.  I do not yet know of anyone who has died of a computer,  though I do know of some cats that look imperiled by the iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner in YouTube videos.

And speaking of Cats, the musical first opened in London in 1981, long after I was born. However, I had the great misfortune to see it--twice--and almost died both times. Maybe not complete death by future, but certainly two hours of agonizing near-death.

PowerPoint was launched by Microsoft in 1990 and, I think, having escaped Cats, scurvy and consumption, I have at least as good a chance as any of expiring of a PowerPoint presentation one day.  Even now I can feel the blood bubbling up in my ears.

My friend, Jon, however, thinks that he has as much chance of “being broadsided by some doofus texting his girlfriend, or her boyfriend” as anything else.  Now there’s a death by future for some of us that is truly fearful: death by text.

To have the driver of an automobile preoccupied by a small plastic phone would have seemed positively absurd to a young person born in 1960 or 70, I know, but no more bizarre than the collision between a 177-cubic-inch front-mounted inline four-cylinder en bloc engine and a 71-year-old farmer at a Buffalo intersection in 1908.