The funny thing about producing a what's next issue of a magazine is that, really, nearly every issue of every magazine--except, say, the Civil War Times--is a What's Next issue. The media are dedicated to the assumption that Americans are dying to find out about the next big thing (witness the special gatefold in this issue). After all, Americans like things, and Americans like big. But why, in this age of too little time and too many distractions, should we care so much about next? My nightstand, desktop, TiVo menu and mental to-do list are still full of last big things I never got around to--The Hulk, Friendster, hot yoga (or, for that matter, cold yoga)--and I'm paid to keep up with this stuff. For the average person with an actual productive job, keeping up with this conveyor belt of novelty must seem like grueling, poorly paid work.
I don't use the term work loosely. Chasing the next big thing is as vital to the economy as the Fed's monetary policy. Tech companies need you to realize how empty your life was in the primitive days before you could e-mail your dishwasher. Celebrity magazines need you to care who the next Ashton Kutcher will be and not to think too much about why we needed the current one in the first place. And the self-help business needs you to despair occasionally of all this trend hopping so you can go out and buy the newest guide to simplifying your life and living in the moment.
The alternative is to consume less, have less, want less and work less. But if we did, we'd be the French. If you want to see how a culture is defined by its attitude toward the future, rent Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. Perhaps the worst sci-fi movie of all time, it was distinguished only by its outlandish costumes, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Give the French a chance to dream up the future, and the first thing they ask is, What will we wear? Americans, on the other hand, want to know what we will drive and how we will kill one another (ergo Star Wars). We learn this curiosity early. Every year at my elementary school we would watch a movie about how we would live in the far future of the 1990s: the cars would be compact and efficient and would drive themselves; music would involve not just sound but holographic light displays as well. (In retrospect, this was a pungently 1970s view of the future: we would all ride our hyperintelligent Pintos to Laser Floyd shows.)
These inventions would never come to be, and that was probably for the best. Nothing is more shimmeringly beautiful than the next big thing in our imagination; nothing is sadder than the next big thing become reality. Remember "Ginger"? The much buzzed-about transportation device was supposed to revolutionize society and change how cities were built. Was it a jet pack? A teleporter? No, it was the Segway scooter, a goofily innocuous machine that seems to have been designed solely so George W. Bush could tumble off one, as he did this summer in Maine. From dreams of rocket men flying across space-age cityscapes to visions of meter readers riding glorified hand trucks--this is what we get when we are so unfortunate as to live long enough to see the next big thing arrive.