Sunday, January 25, 2015

Living Outside the Norms of Time: Remembering Frank Ogden ('Dr. Tomorrow')

He went by many names. Some proclaimed him the "Marco Polo of Cyberspace." Others, "Dr. Tomorrow" from his internationally syndicated newspaper column that appeared throughout North America. Whatever name you gave him, it was generally agreed that Frank Ogden, who died at the age of 92 a few days before the New Year arrived in 2012, was one of Canada's rare creatures – an iconoclast who lived outside the norms of his time. He was not only an elected fellow of the Explorer's Club; he was also the first Canadian member of the World Future Club. From studying voodoo in Haiti, to turning himself into a "cyborg" by having surgically implanted, intra-ocular bionic lenses to improve his eyesight, Ogden was never chained by conventions. In a country not noted for celebrating its prodigies, Ogden created a niche that left both scientists and scholars comparing him to such unconventionally brilliant thinkers as Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller.

I first met Ogden as a five-year-old when my mother worked for him in the late Fifties. Reflecting back, I can still remember walking into his sprawling house, which contained one living room filled with Sahara sand to dig your toes into and exotic trees that cast twisted shadows on the wall. (For a kid, it was the home you always wished for, but knew you'd never get.) There were hookahs and lava lamps everywhere (before they became vogue in the psychedelic Sixties) mixed in with art relics from the Middle East and India. He also had two pet snakes that were like buddies to me every time I visited. When I saw him again for an interview in 1996, as a book reviewer for the Financial Post, he was still ahead of the game. "I am a futurist," he reminded me. "But if I don't change today, tomorrow I'll be a historian." In his book, Navigating in Cyberspace: A Guide to the Next Millennium (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1995), a free-wheeling dissertation on – what else? – the future, he not only discussed the virtues of the emerging Internet ("Just imagine at your fingertips a city, a resort, a jungle, a sleek panther, a goddess, or devil; why not interact with them all?"), but also branched out into emerging technologies we were just beginning to comprehend in the mid-Nineties.

Early on, Ogden was extolling the value of camcorders before computers began including them (and also before cellphones existed in the public domain): "When one video clip showing beatings by the LAPD [the Rodney King beating], taken on a video camera by a rank amateur, results in $500 million in damage by arson and looting in one evening, can anyone say we're not moving into a new age?" He showed me a writing pen filled with his own DNA-encoded ink. The point, I asked? "No counterfeiter can duplicate it," he asserted. He also took me through a riveting discussion of what he described as virtual medicine. "The next time you have an operation, imagine it being videotaped, or even televised, and sent by satellite to a teaching hospital on the other side of the world," he exclaimed with his arms waving as if he were conducting the molecules in the room. "I'm very optimistic about the future. But I want you to know that it's going to be a turbulent 20 years ahead of us. We're at the interface of two ages and that always creates turbulence." Our emergence from the Industrial Age into the Electronic Age, that is from the analog world to a digital one, he told me, was going to change everything so dramatically that the shock of it would pull the rug out from under our certainty that all things could last. In Navigating in Cyberspace, he first describes the period that took us out of the Agricultural Age and into the Industrial Revolution. He claimed that a revolution would appear benign next to the new Electronic Age. "In those days, we had centuries and decades to absorb the changes those times brought," he reminded me. "But today, we've got a weekend."

Ogden was born in Toronto but grew up in Philadelphia. After high school, he went to Miami Beach to work as a deckhand on banana boats. When the Second World War broke out, he returned to Canada and spent six years flying coastal patrols in the Atlantic. During the Sixties, he worked as both a researcher and therapist at a private psychiatric hospital that treated patients with LSD; he even took a few acid trips to better understand the treatment. But it was in the Seventies, after a trip to Haiti, during which he took part in a purification by fire voodoo ritual (his feet were plunged into the flames numerous times), that peering into the unknown took root. In the Nineties, he lived on a houseboat in Vancouver where he communicated internationally with anyone who cared to discuss self-driving cars that ran on carbon dioxide, electronic immigration, or computer software that could translate different languages into English at 1,000 words per minute. "Do you know that I can set up a global video conference internationally for only a dollar an hour?" he asked me years before Skype. He showed me a camera the size of a billiard ball that he hooked up to his Mac which enabled him to talk to his parrot on the houseboat (and the parrot would talk back while looking into the boat's camera attached to his cage). "Most businesses spend millions trafficking people by flight. Isn't that the image of a dinosaur?" he laughed.

In one of the more contentious parts of the book, Ogden pointed out that the public sector would soon overprice itself in the face of the rapidly changing technology. "The public sector has now softened North Americans on the possibilities of risk and imagination," he said. "I think the private sector has the ability to free us from those constraints." Many might read into those comments what became the sweeping conservative mantra felt across Canada in the Harper years, but he told me that he could hardly ally himself with predatory policies that created their own crippling bureaucracies at the expense of dispossessing others. He liked to think of himself more as a pioneer who had the libertarian spirit of the adventurer, the entrepreneurial spirit that Canada sometimes stifles. But for Frank Ogden, that spirit opened the door to worlds unimagined. "The Industrial Age gave us the have and have-nots," he explained. "But this new age is giving us the know and know-nots. If you know, you're going upstream; if you know-not, you're falling into the land of the techno-peasant." There isn't a day when, while preparing text for Critics at Large, working on my tablet, or using Bluetooth to stream my music, I can't hear Frank Ogden's voice in my head as I touch the edges of this new age – or feel that Sahara sand from his living room under my toes.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.         

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