It’s a Mad, MAD Future
I remembered Al Jaffee the Fold-In Genius. I had forgotten Al Jaffee the futurist.
In case you think I’ve gone MAD, let me explain.
You may have seen the obituaries that went around recently proclaiming the death of MAD magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee at the age of 102. The impish Al was a key part of the magazine’s snark and satire, especially after creating the Fold-In … a back cover drawing that would set up a question, only to reveal a new drawing with a punchline answer when folded together. (“What favorite of both kids and parents is guaranteed to be around forever? … Discarded disposable diapers.”)
But as one CBC story reminded me, Jaffee also drew parody ads for the magazine, using a familiar Madison Avenue approach to promote completely outrageous things.
You know, like a phone that remembers what you just dialed even when you don’t.
Or a razor with multiple blades.
Or … well, you get the idea.
I’m not saying that Jaffee had a pipeline to the future. Plenty of his ad gags turned out to be just that, products that were laughable then and now. But there were just enough hits to be a little scary. And that nails a basic truth: if you want to see what’s coming next, it helps if your glasses are a little cockeyed.
A lot of us live lives that assume tomorrow will be just like today, only with stranger music. From one angle, that doesn’t seem unreasonable. After all, we’re learning from experience and building reflexes, so we extrapolate from what we already know.
That works for a while … until it doesn’t. Even on a personal scale, we know this. A healthy life can change without warning. A job can go away or mutate beyond recognition. Yesterday’s friend can be tomorrow’s memory. Those kind of shocks hit hard.
And on a larger scale? Many science fiction authors have warned that they write great stories but poor prophecies. One ironic example: Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation,” a series of stories about experts in reading the future, had a galactic society with practically no computers. (He would eventually rectify that in the 1980s.)
Sure, sometimes something clicked. But the biggest successes have often come from writers who didn’t take the subject too seriously. Who were willing to be outright silly, in fact.
Take “A Logic Named Joe,” a hilariously screwball story from the 1940s that also happened to anticipate personal home computers, linked databases, natural-language queries and parental controls.
Or “The Jetsons,” where videoconferencing was so common that even doctor’s visits were done remotely.
Or of course, Al Jaffee, who thought he was kidding when he mock-advertised a stamp that would save you the trouble of licking it.
What can I say? Sometimes it pays to be weird.
In fact, it can be downright liberating.
It’s not natural for many of us. After all, it’s risky to break with what “everyone knows.” Most of us don’t like the idea of looking silly or taking a step into the unknown.
But the unknown comes whether we’re ready or not. And sometimes yesterday’s conventional thinking proves to be sillier than even the most satirical writer could have dreamed.
We don’t know everything. And when we admit that – when we leave ourselves open to new possibilities, however strange – that’s when we can start to build a future.
Maybe Al taught us well. Look at the picture in front of you, sure … but be willing to fold it up to see the answer you need.
It’s a MAD idea. But it just might work.