John Timpane

is associate editor of The Inquirer Editorial Board

Hilarious, poignant, the news report was a sign of where we've been and where we are.

On June 15, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Oklahoma's statehood, Tulsa officials opened a "time capsule" sunk near the town courthouse on June 15, 1957. Entombed: a brand-new, glittering, finny 1957 Plymouth Belvedere Sport Coupe.

Time capsules were all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s. They were the rage because the future - or at least one way of imagining it - was the rage.

They planned to start up the brand-old Belvedere at exhumation, but when they tried, they found . . . a muddy, rusted-out vehicle suitable for use only as a boat anchor. Inside was a list of 1957 guesses at the 2007 population of Tulsa; the winner would win the car and a $100 savings bond (now worth about $1,200)! Alas, the winner, like the car, had died.

That Belvedere and its fate symbolize a way of thinking about the future - Gosh, I wonder how neat it will be - that is now a thing of the past.

Not that we've stopped believing there's such a thing as the future.

Only that the cultural place of the future, the place it once had in the collective conversation of the Western industrial democracies, is gone.

Why? Because the future arrived - and, perhaps for the first time in history, people know they are living there.

And the future is not as advertised. We have landed, not in outer space, but in a richer, deeper inner space.

When was the last time you used the once-ubiquitous word futuristic? The word itself - as applied to fashion, architecture, music, stage, film - savors of the old-timey, wayyyy back, when The Jetsons was a winky commentary on the world obsession with "the future."

Passé.

You want gone? Take a symbol, any symbol, of what the future once meant. Eero Saarinen's TWA Flight Center Building at JFK Airport - begun when the airport was still named Idlewild, and when there was still a TWA - used to be a symbol of "the futuristic." It's still a sweeping, passionate poem of steel and molded stone - but it's very 1962. Plastic clothes? Retro. They used to have this stuff they called "space music." Lost in space.

Consider Tomorrowland, creation of one of the most prominent '50s futurists, Walt Disney. Problem with tomorrow is it's faster than you, and poor Tomorrowland keeps getting obsolete. Opened in 1955, the version at the original Disneyland had to be revamped in 1968 and again in 1998 (as a retro attraction!). The quip (itself now an old joke) is that it keeps becoming Yesterdayland. "The future," the way it used to be . . . the future of the past . . . no más.

Back in the 1930s, there was a lot of future talk. Capitalism didn't work; some longed for socialism; utopian dreams flavored the public discourse. In the future, there would be no want, no hunger; all would be brotherhood.

The 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. (its theme was "The World of Tomorrow"), was where the "future" erupted into American popular thinking: the first public television broadcast . . . the first-ever "World Science-Fiction Convention" . . . buildings called the Trylon, the Perisphere, the Helicline (words that died with the fair in 1940).

Ten years after that, the tone of the future had changed. Cold War anxiety prevailed. The future lay on the far side of a dark, fearful present. Evildoers were going to take us over, poison our children, blow us up. It couldn't last forever, could it? There had to be another side, when better angels would rule.

What scuttled the future?

The future arrived.

For one thing, the bad guys went away. The Wall fell.

For another thing, the future died and went to Earth. It's with us every day and we know it. We see how it changes our lives. We want that change and consume it. No talk about "what it'll be like when it gets here." It's been here for a generation. The personal computer is 30 years old this year; the personal cell phone about 20. Having such technology so casually at hand has helped kill off old notions of the future. Instead of outer space, we have landed in a potentially deeper, enriching inner space.

Consider June 29, official launch of the iPhone by Apple. Folks lined up for blocks to get one. iPhones are not cheap and they're not the future. They are right now: e-mail; Web; massive music, photo and video storage; bottle opener; paint scraper. You have to ask: Do you need the future any more?

The iPhone is only a device; it doesn't change everything. But it and gadgets like it, rolling out in an ever-quickening cascade, have helped kill the future in a powerful, empowering way. They help us extend our most human asset: Our ability - indeed, our need - to create meaning in the present.

Meaning does not wait to be made; it is being manufactured every waking moment by our brains, the meaning machines. As human beings, we're always making meaning - paying out our belaying ropes to people, places and things, to bind them to us and us to them, to make them fast. Meaning is what we make now, not then.

That woman on the train discussing her sex life (at the top of her lungs) on the cell phone may be irritating; that guy glued to his laptop, typing madly in the airport, may be cut off from his surroundings. But they're making meaning in the moment. I don't know whether they're always happy, but it's what they're doing that's different - potentially, they could be expanding the things and people they know, the things they can do, the way they think.

Our new gadgets encourage us to use this moment to build something - to refresh old connections, forge new ones, store, query, reply, amplify.

It's not always good. A lot of it - like a lot of everything - is just garbage. People shouldn't be contactable 24/7; people should not give up so much of what used to be called "private time" to their employers and acquaintances.

There's also, however, a great deal of potential here. We can skip a lot of old, tired steps: We can learn many new things, meet new minds like our own, build new alliances. Welcome to the future as kinetic present: a this-moment that opens out into new connections, a filling of the present, not a flight from it.

Good riddance to the future - at least, to the future imagined as a refuge from the present. The present is where you have your problems and where you must face them. (Notice I did not write solve.) There will always be suffering and want. Always there will be worries - China or India getting too big; thugs who seek to destroy cultures unlike their own. We'll always want to know how long we have left, how long we have to wait, whether it'll all work out. And we all have work to do (e.g., preserve the biosphere).

So it's not that we've stopped thinking about the future. It's just that it's not coming to save us; we are creating it. We are expanding our awareness now. We are expanding awareness itself. Now.

Here's how dead the old future is. Thousands of folks reading this article will say to themselves: "That's so 2003. Like I didn't know."

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com.