Fast And Furious Fun

IT IS THE PROMISE OF AMERICA, FULFILLED. A NATION OF limitless, unbounded fun, of mountain majesties iridescent with Gore-Tex-backed rock climbers and skies filled to the vast horizon with direct-satellite broadcasts of minor-league hockey games. It is a vision that dates from the very dawn of America, when John Adams wrote of studying war and diplomacy so that succeeding generations could be schooled in agriculture, industry, music, art and poetry--never imagining that casino gambling, Snowboarding, golf and gourmet dining would join that roster as indispensable amenities in the nation he helped found. It was for this that Lewis and Clark trudged relentlessly through the finest backpacking terrain in the world, and generations of comics risked dying night after night on the spotlit floors of Las Vegas--a city where, if the number of hotel rooms (now about 100,000) continues to increase at 10 percent a year, sometime around the year 2074 the entire population of the United States will be able to take a vacation at the same time.

If you had fun in the 20th century, or even if you didn't, you will find it almost impossible to avoid in the 21st. Working ever harder to keep your place in the world economy, you will seek out fun in compensatory doses. Fun in the next century will be of much higher quality, because there will be so many more playoff games in comparison to the regular season, a trend clearly in evidence in last year's baseball schedule. And outdoors fun will be better than ever. There won't be any new mountains, but the ones already in place will be exploited even more imaginatively by people climbing up them, and sliding, rolling, rappelling or hang-gliding down. Try to escape fun and it will seek you out anyway, at your hotel or restaurant, where eating will increasingly be impossible without the accompaniment of 32 bedsheet-size TV screens showing highlights from the World Cup quarterfinals.

What Hollywood represented to the 20th century, Las Vegas will be to the 21st, the embodiment of American entertainment in all its irresponsible, greedy exuberance. While the studios spend $100,000 a second on computer simulations of explosions, Las Vegas actually blew up a real hotel on New Year's Eve in front of 200,000 tourists, just for the fun of it. In its place will rise a 4,000-room, $800 million resort whose theme is described as "an ancient forbidden city discovered on a lush, wave-tossed tropical island." The project includes manmade surf, a swim-up shark exhibit and a microbrewery themed as a sugar refinery, with regularly scheduled rain showers. Las Vegas has a childlike fascination with ancient cities, like Rome, Venice, Luxor and New York, whose architecture can be gleefully parodied in billion-dollar hotels ringed with roller coasters. "There's no evidence that Las Vegas is even close to topping out," says Mark Manson, who follows the entertainment industries for Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette. No wonder Hollywood, which last year released more movies than ever into a domestic market that's been stagnant for years, looks forward to the turn of the century with none of Vegas's brash self-confidence. "People will still want to go out," predicts John Calley, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. "The places they go, however, will be more exotic. People will be actualizing fantasies in new ways. I envision entertainment malls with a striking array of things to see. Including movies. Look at Vegas."

To feel the breeze of the onrushing 21st century, says architect Louis Hedgecock of the New York firm of Brennan Beer Gorman, step out into the 100-mile-an-hour updraft of a sky-diving simulator, an attraction you can find near the Las Vegas Hilton. Spread-eagled, suspended in midair, you float and bob, exploring unsuspected aerodynamic features of your body. Hedgecock knows about this because his firm has made a sky-diving simulator the centerpiece of a new restaurant/health club--which will also have the inevitable barrage of television monitors, a glass-walled basketball court and a rock-climbing wall, without which no meal will feel complete in the 21st century. What makes this remarkable is that it is planned to be built right at the sidewalk on a busy corner of midtown Manhattan, on the ground floor of the New York Sheraton, until now the very model of the staid, bland businessman's hotel. "We used to be just in the Feed 'Em and Bed 'Em business," says Paul O'Neil, president of Sheraton Hotels of New York. "Now we're thinking, in the next century, we're going to have to entertain 'em, too." Even Michael Whiteman, a consultant who has helped create some of New York's most sophisticated restaurants, sees the continued integration of dining and spectacle as inevitable, boldly predicting that the new millennium will see a return of the dinner theater--perhaps in some new format that will bring Neil Simon into the world of multimedia. On the bright side, he says, life in the next century will be made greatly more bearable as themed restaurants, exploiting ever thinner slices of the imaginative spectrum (The Motor Scooter Cafe? Planet Soap Opera?), begin to kill each other off.

O'Neil, from the most elemental of commercial motives, has hit on a deep trend shaping American society, the interpenetration of fun with the rest of life. The revolution in communications technology has made the office inescapable for many people who hold what once were considered 9-to-5 jobs. If they want to float in midair for a few minutes between appointments, who could blame them? At the same time, Americans harbor a popular mythology of escape--to the wilderness, the open road, the farmhouse in Vermont or the ranch in Montana--dreams that have little or no relation to the way most people actually live their lives. "You want to go backpacking with your friends," says John Sharpless, a professor of modern American history at the University of Wisconsin, "so you spend six months on the phone arranging your work schedules so you can get one week together. Then you drive like mad to the Rockies, climb up and down and up and down and drive like mad back to your jobs so you won't get fired." Nostalgia for the endless summers of youth drives people to all sorts of extreme behavior--like investing in mutual funds, hoping to miraculously transform a middle-class salary into independent wealth. If the stock market somehow continues on its present course and reaches 10,000 by the millennium, it will call the bluff of an awful lot of middle-aged professionals.

Another way to blunt the existential pain of middle-class life is to estheticize it, so that tasks earlier generations were happy to escape--like cooking or painting the house--are redefined as fun, an intellectual and imaginative challenge. "People buy an old Victorian and spend every Saturday scraping the walls," Sharpless says. "They claim it's agonizing work, but nobody made them do it. It's middle-class sport." This explains why social critics unanimously agree that the most important American cultural figure of the 21st century will be Martha Stewart, who gives this trend a necessary patina of upper-crust cachet.

Of course, it's not to everyone's taste. People under the age of 30 don't seem particularly riveted by the romance of home improvement. In the next century, they'll be too busy at Sega Gameworks, a chain of 21st-century arcades backed by Sega, Universal Studios and DreamWorks SKG. President Michael Montgomery describes it as "an alternative to discos for the young adult," which can be loosely translated as "save your quarters, bring a credit card." When the first branch opens in Seattle in March--there are 40 planned by the year 2000--its centerpiece will be Vertical Reality, an interactive game designed by Steven Spielberg in which the player's chair rises with each new skill level to a maximum height of 24 feet... and then drops in free fall if he loses. Is it just coincidence that DreamWorks, intended to represent the future of Hollywood, is producing an arcade game before it has a movie in the theaters?

When not playing futuristic videogames, the sub-boomers can wile away their idle weekends jouncing down hills on a MountainBoard, an all-terrain oversize skateboard equipped with a suspension and balloon tires. "It's the closest thing to Snowboarding without snow, way more fun than skating and much saner than road luge," raves Steve Casimiro, editor of the hip ski magazine Powder. It's part of a trend toward "hybrids and mutations" in sports, according to Joanne DeLuca, a partner in Sputnik, a youth-oriented marketing-research firm. Snowboarding, a cross between surfing and skiing, grew out of this trend and gave rise to wakeboarding, in which a short board takes the place of water skis. Ice hockey's offspring, in-line skating, gave rise in turn to in-line basketball, a very hip-hop thing to do in Manhattan's East Village. Youthful energy, when channeled into golf, has produced radical golf, a sport in which players strap one or two clubs to a backpack and set off on a quest to see who can finish a course in the fewest number of strokes and the shortest time, running from stroke to stroke and dodging their opponents' balls as they go. It's already been played a couple of times in Palo Alto, and it could be very hot sometime in the next century.

Which is about as far into the unknown as the imagination of man can extend, although it's certainly possible to conceive of a microbrewery featuring radical-golf virtual-reality simulators and 65 giant videowalls showing an interactive version of "The Prisoner of Second Avenue." In fact, someone's probably planning one right now, as part of a $12 billion, 10,000-room resort that will re-create the entire topography of Dante's Divine Comedy and feature daily re-creations of the Normandy landings and a simulated solar eclipse every hour.

And you can guess where it will be built.

PHOTO (COLOR): FREE FALLING: To feel the breeze of the onrushing century, try this sky-diving simulator in Las Vegas--where simulation is an art

PHOTO (COLOR): RADICAL GOLF: Swing. Run. Swing. Run. No carts allowed in this Gen-X hybrid of Ultimate Frisbee and Bill Clinton's favorite game.

PHOTO (COLOR): NEW YORK, NEW YORK, NEVADA: What Hollywood was to this century, Las Vegas will be to the next: the repository of our national dream of irresponsible, boundless leisure

PHOTO (COLOR): VERTICAL REALITY: Steven Spielberg's next production isn't a movie but an interactive game for a new chain of upscale arcades, 'an alternative to discos for the young adult.'

LOG ME ON TO THE BALL GAME

DISPATCHES FROM THE FUTURE

OCT. 18, 2024 The Albuquerque Gauchos stunned the Singapore Tycoons today, 17-4, in the first game of the new Virtual World Series. This marked the first baseball championship to be played not on a field but on a computer screen. There was no stadium, no fans and--except in an electronic sense--no players. Attendance, however, was far higher than expected: more than 1.9 billion people logged on.

In the early innings, the Tycoons' Min Yee Goldschmidt baffled the Gauchos with the deceptive Four Agonies pitching motion favored in Southeast Asia. The prospect of a pitching duel dismayed many spectators; Microsoft league headquarters registered 126 million demands from the interactive audience for a more aggressive program to be inserted into the game.

The contest featured a rare appearance by Roberto Clemente, a star outfielder for the long-defunct Pittsburgh Pirates during the last century. His tragic death in a plane crash had cut short a brilliant career in 1972, but the magic of virtuality brought him back for a heroic encore. Clemente, his baggy white uniform conspicuous on a screen speckled with neon Lycra, smashed a grand slam that accounted for the Gauchos' final five runs. It was just one more sign that the extra base introduced into the game four years ago has failed to reduce the scoring sprees that jeopardized baseball by carrying many games past their time slots.

AFTER THE MILLENNIUM. . .

MOUNTAINS WILL BE HIGHER, AMERICANS WILL BE OLDER AND SOMEONE ELSE WILL BE CLEANING YOUR HOUSE

In 2000, the Himalayas will be more than an inch higher.

In 2010, there will be 2.9 workers for every person receiving Social Security. In 1950, there were 16.6 workers for every person receiving Social Security.

In 2010, a "1997 dollar" will be worth about 63 cents.

By 2000, nearly 10 million U.S. households will be using a maid, housekeeper or professional cleaning service--an increase of more than 5000,000 since 1996.

By 2000, your chance of contracting malignant melanoma will increase to 1 in 75. In 1935, the risk was 1 in 1,500.

The annual number of births in America, which dipped below 4 million in 1994, is expected to climb again after 2000, breaking 4 million in 2008 and 4.5 million in 2018.

By 2005, there will be more than 1000,000 Americans aged 100 years or older.

By 2000, Mexico City will be perilously short of clean air and water.

Shortly after the year 2030, the number of Americans who have died since the founding of the nation will surpass the number of living Americans.

The number of U.S. scheduled air passengers will increase 59 percent by 2007, to more than 900 million a year.

In 2000, IBM predicts hard-disk drives (in PCs) will outsell television sets.

Shortly after 2020, there will be more Americans over age 65 than under age 13.

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