Dec 31, 2020

Seeing 2020 Through 1993 Eyes

Trapper Keeper
The Mead Corporation (1993)
One of my favorite records of all time is Recovering The Satellites, the sophomore album by Counting Crows that was released in 1996.  My favorite track from that album is A Long December, which begins with Adam singing "A long December and there's reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last".  It's not just been a long December; it has been a long and difficult year.  Covid-19 was the leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, surpassing both cancer and heart disease.  

While things aren't going to magically go back to normal when the ball drops on Times Square, the words of A Long December ring true, in that there are reasons to be optimistic that things will start to get better in 2021.  I'm not naive enough to believe that the hardships brought into the world by Covid are suddenly going to disappear with a vaccine.  We're going to be dealing with the health, social, financial and political side-effects of this virus for years, if not decades to come.  So, as I've done since I was in elementary school, I will continue to use nostalgia as a security blanket - to take comfort in the joys of the past to deal with uncertainty of the present, and I make no apologies for doing so.  It's much safer than drugs, alcohol or the countless other coping mechanisms that people fall back on.  All it takes is a few mouse clicks to find a picture of an old Trapper Keeper and like magic, I have a smile on my face.

Trapper Keepers were known for their funky artwork that was designed to appeal to elementary and middle school students throughout the 80's and 90's.  Having grown up during that time, I can tell you that as much as I loved the summer time, I looked forward to going out with my dad and my grandparents to buy "back to school" supplies, and a brand new Trapper Keeper, with places to hold papers, folders and pencils, was at the very top of my wish list year after year.

This design from 1993 is the very definition of retro futurism, as it imagines the world of a young teenager in the far off distant year of 2020.  It appears that he is either on another planet or in a zero gravity room with a soda, potato chips, and a slice of pizza floating in the air.  Another house can be seen outside of the right window which looks very similar to those seen in The Jetsons.  Beneath the windows is a strip of what appear to be either posters or flat screen televisions, with Godzilla on the one at the far left.  The main reason that I suspect they may be posters instead of LCD televisions (apart from the fact that these televisions wouldn't exist for another 10-15 years) is the fact that there's a red CRT television sitting on the right across from the colorful sofa.  This appears to be showing a 3-D image of a Spuds MacKenzie-like character popping out of the center of the Loony Tunes title screen.  Outside of rarities like the Captain EO short film at Epcot Center, 3-D technology of the time was pretty much limited to the paper red-blue glasses that would sometimes come packaged with comic books.

Speaking of glasses, the boy appears to be wearing either a funky pair of shades, or a futuristic VR headset, which technically existed, but was mostly in the realm of science fiction back in 1993.  I lean towards the latter, since there is a microphone connected to them.  This was many years before gamers would regularly wear microphones while gaming online.  Just to put into perspective the world of gaming that existed when this artwork was created, the best-selling games of that year were Tetris on the NES, Street Fighter II for the SNES and PGA Tour Golf II on the Sega Genesis (that last one is pretty surprising - I would have bet money that it would have been Mortal Kombat or one of the Sonic games).

The boy's right hand is on something that looks like a Discman floating in the zero-gravity atmosphere with a compact disc floating at the bottom center of the image.  Even though the format existed in the 80's, I didn't know anyone who owned one at the time because CDs and CD players were pretty expensive.  My stepsister's collection of rock and heavy metal albums was entirely on cassette, and neither one of us got into CDs until the mid 90's (my first one being Collective Soul's debut album the year after this artwork came out).  The point is that for many of the kids who would have been carrying Trapper Keepers at the time, CDs were still kind of a futuristic technology.  None of us could have imagined that Napster would come along six years later and literally rip the life out of the technology.

Last but not least, take a closer look at that coffee table in front of the sofa.  If you look closely, you'll see that there's a computer built into it with what I imagine to be a glass top covering the monitor.  A keyboard and either a post-it note or a yellow floppy disc are below the screen.  If you look even closer at the screen, there's a message to "please press return to receive homework assignment".  This is a slightly eerie prediction for 2020, a year in which most children around their country have had all of their schoolwork sent home through a computer.

Let's unpack what we're seeing here.  I know it's cliche for a Gen X'er like myself to try to explain a world before the internet to Millennials and Gen Z, but I really get the impression that they don't fully understand.  I know the history books will tell you that the internet was invented in the 60's and used by universities as early as the 80's.  However, I can assure you as someone whose entire teenage years was spent in the 1990's, for all practical purposes, there was no internet in 1993.  In fact, the vast majority of kids who carried this Trapper Keeper probably hadn't even heard the word "internet" before, let alone used it.  The best way I can describe it is to look at self-driving cars in 2020.  They technically exist, but nobody that you know has one.  The technology is at its infancy, the cost is prohibitive, and the infrastructure that would allow it become commonplace is far enough in the future that we can only imagine with it will be like one day.

That was the internet in 1993.  We had all been told for decades that computers were the future, but we weren't quite sure what it would look like, so people created works of art and fiction to imagine the possibilities.  In fact, the only practical uses I had ever seen a computer used for in 1993 was to play video games or to use as a glorified word processor.  You can see this reflected by the fact that it uses the word "return" instead of "enter".  On a typewriter, the position on a keyboard where you find the enter key was the return key, because it made the carriage return to the left hand side and moved your paper down to type on the next line.

I was 12 and 13 year old back in 1993.  My only awareness that a computer could connect to another computer over a telephone line at that time was the movie WarGames, and an occasional tv commercial for Prodigy, which my stepmom described to me as a service that "lets you hook the phone up to the computer to access things like the encyclopedia".  My middle school in Florida had computers in the library, but I can't remember a time when we actually used them.  In fact, I had a typing class in 7th grade that was just rows of word processors on school desks.  When I returned to Pennsylvania in 9th grade, I once again had to take typing in a school that had old school typewriters that had probably been there for the past twenty years.  I'm sure that there were private schools and universities that were doing more with them, but the few that existed in the public schools that I went to mostly just sat around collecting dust, with few teachers who could think of what to do with them in a classroom setting.

Looking at this Trapper Keeper today, I can remember what it was like to imagine a future with computers at every turn.  It also makes me want to look at the artwork that's being created today to see what we imagine the future will be.  Even before the pandemic, the world of 2020 barely resembles the world I knew in 1993.  Only time will tell what 2047 have in store for us.