Stories of the open road hold a powerful sway over our imagination. Throughout the twentieth century the highway has served as a compelling metaphor for the contradictory cultural logic of humankind’s fascination with and fear of transportation technologies. The highway reveals fantasies of technological utopianism as well as anxieties about the destruction of the environment and the dehumanizing impact of modernity.
In this project, we aim to reconsider the ways that the Interstate Highway System have not just organized the movements of goods and people through time and space, but, like modern communication networks, have determined, to a large extent, an entire culture, its practices, and its values. We explore planning documents, industrial films, corporate ephemera, and science fiction narratives in order to examine how these stories of the road have influenced not only how we imagine highways, but also how they came to be physically built, and how we have been captured within their vast networks.
The narrative trajectory of this project journeys from industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’ visionary “Futurama,” a harbinger of a golden future enabled by high-speed transportation in the 1930s, to J.G. Ballard’s “Autogeddon,” and other science fiction narratives in the latter half of the twentieth century that imagined the end of the world by automobile. These literary and cultural touchstones reflect some of our most potent fantasies as well as our deepest anxieties about modernity, ecology, commerce, and individuality. In doing so, we show how the stories we tell about the highway—whether in the service of national pride, corporate advertising, urban planning, or apocalyptic warnings—determine how we imagine or fail to imagine the possibilities for human action in built environments. Like highways themselves, the stories we tell accumulate layer upon layer with each passing generation. To encounter the highway of today, then, is to experience its multiple and contradictory cultural associations—past and future, utopian and apocalyptic—all at once.
Strategies for reading Futurama, Autogeddon
This project can be read in two ways: by chapter or by thread. Choosing to read the project by chapter will take you through an historical period, beginning with a comprehensive contextual overview followed by three theoretical nodes. So, for example, by reading through Chapter One, “Highways and Horizons,” you will first encounter a Context reading discussing the 1939-1940 World’s Fair, followed by three theoretical readings: a Chronotope reading discussing how General Motors’ “Futurama” exhibit reimagined space and time for visitors of the fair, many of whom were encountering, for the first time, a cleaner and faster vision of the American landscape of the future; a Specters reading examining how the Futurama’s idealized aesthetics were already haunted by the very social problems—urban slums, pollution, and poverty—that this “new horizon” aimed to sweep under the rug; and, finally, a Machine reading showing how the fair was already foreshadowing contemporary concerns about the dehumanizing effects of technology.
Alternatively, you may decide to explore the project by thread, concentrating on one theoretical perspective at a time. You may choose to read by Chronotope, for instance, which will lead you to follow a pathway through the project so that you view the context section followed by the Chronotope section in turn for each chapter.
Recommended citation: Burgess, Helen, and Jeanne Hamming. Futurama, Autogeddon: Highways of the Mind from the World's Fair to the End of the World. NC State University Libraries, 2022, https://doi.org/10.52750/493205