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The Nostradamus of 1953 | Chuck's World


Last updated 11/14/2019 at 10:12am

Does the name Doug Forcett ring a bell?

I’m not suggesting it should. I had to look it up, and I’m writing this thing.

Doug Forcett is a minor character on the NBC sitcom “The Good Place,” which is now in its fourth and final season. I kept hearing about the show, and eventually I became a fan.

“The Good Place” is an idea about ideas, with laughs. It takes place almost entirely in the afterlife, a corner of which is apparently being supervised by Ted Danson. That alone would get my attention.

Danson plays a sort of one-man homeowners’ association in the hereafter, or maybe a small-town mayor. He’s the man in charge, anyway, although he’s not really a man.

The series began with the premise that even heaven makes mistakes. A self-described Arizona dirt bag, Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell), ends up in The Good Place in what eventually seems to be a case of mistaken identity, and at first the show appeared to be based on Eleanor’s wacky attempts to become a better person after the fact, before she’s discovered.

This is not really what the show is about, although I’ll stop there. I have no desire to spoil the twists and lurches of this very clever and funny series. I tend to do that anyway by describing episodes in detail to my wife, who prefers her television predigested.

“The Good Place” nods in the direction of its source material, including Albert Brooks’ 1991 film “Defending Your Life,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” and a particularly memorable episode of “The Twilight Zone” for those who remember.

As in Brooks’ movie (and a fair amount of human theology), the next life is based on the last one. In “The Good Place,” lives are assessed on a point system, and ultimate destinations depend on individual acts, with points added or deducted along the line. There’s no final judgment in this scenario, just a final score.

And Doug Forcett figures this out, as a stoned teenager in the 1970s who has a moment of magic mushroom-induced epiphany. He intuits almost the entire point-based system (actually, 92% of it) in a flash of understanding.

The creatures who run The Good Place don’t think much of humans, but they’re impressed with Doug’s discovery. He’s a sort of hero there, a hapless human being who took a stab at the meaning of life and succeeded.

That’s Doug. He’s a fictional character and we don’t need to talk about him anymore.

Does the name Mark Sullivan ring a bell?

Mark R. Sullivan was the president and director of the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company, based in San Francisco. On April 9, 1953, Sullivan was giving a speech in Pasadena, California, when he made a few remarks about the future.

Sixty-six years later, the future has noticed.

I made a cursory search across the internet, looking for Mr. Sullivan. There was little to find, other than some vital statistics. Mark Sullivan was 57 years old when he made these comments, born the same year as F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Burns, and though I couldn’t find an obituary, I’ll assume that he left this earth at least 25 years ago.

You have a sense of what has changed in the past 25 years. This is important to the story.

Mr. Sullivan was in the communications field, so it makes sense that he was speaking about telephones at this Pasadena event in 1953. As I understand it, someone was researching old newspaper articles from the Tacoma News Tribune archive and found an article referencing Sullivan’s remarks, and last week it started spreading online.

Here’s the pertinent part. “Just what form the future telephone will take is, of course, pure speculation. Here is my prophecy:

“In its final development, the telephone will be carried about by the individual, perhaps as we carry a watch today. It probably will require no dial or equivalent, and I think the users will be able to see each other, if they want, as they talk.”

It also makes sense that Sullivan would be speculating about technology, and the future of communication. His comments aren’t theatrical or all that surprising. This was the same year, 1953, that the hydrogen bomb was developed, that DNA was discovered, that REM sleep was first identified, and that the first manned aircraft achieved Mach 2.

The future was already happening.

But he nailed it, with Doug Forcett accuracy, and it’s remarkable because it’s rare. Lots of people speculated about lots of things, but Sullivan somehow understood, or imagined, that the future would be small, fast, and ubiquitous.

If you were born after his remarks in 1953 and you don’t have a smartphone in your pocket, you’re an aberration (if maybe an admirable one).

Albert Einstein and Aldous Huxley, alive in 1953 and no slouches in terms of predicting the future, didn’t see it coming. Neither did Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. There’s been a lot of startling prescience over the years, but I’m fascinated that a fairly ordinary man, in a fairly innocuous way, saw the future for what it could be, and called it.

The future is always hiding in the past. This just makes me wonder if we should be looking harder for those hiding places, if only to remind ourselves that sometimes we glimpse where we’re going.

Magic mushrooms are probably not necessary.


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