Russia-Ukraine: Two years of war
Scroll to the top

1994 was the future

1994 was the future
Annie Gugliotta

A few days ago, someone sent me this year’s installment of the old, “If Marty McFly traveled back in time now, he’d wind up in …” meme from “Back to the Future.”

In the original movie, you’ll recall, Marty’s journey flashes him from the 1985 world of Ronald Reagan and Eddie Van Halen to the 1955 of “Earth Angel” and Dwight Eisenhower.

Today he’d be going to 1994. He has lucked out. Not only because he’ll get to relive the releases of, say, Illmatic and “Pulp Fiction” – or, if you prefer, Dookie and “Friends” – but also because while he’s there trying to rescue his own future, he’s going to learn a whole lot about ours.

How did things get to be this way? How could we not see it all coming? Let’s take the trip with Marty.

When he first arrives in 1994, Marty is confused. Although his 2024 outfit – North Face puffy, Adidas sambas, baggy jeans – makes it unexpectedly easy to blend in among the natives of the 90s, this is still a bewildering world.

“Cloud” and “stream” are words of nature, rather than terms of technology, “text” is still just a noun, and everyone seems, amazingly, to know each other’s phone numbers by heart. Marty certainly does not know the importance of a SkyPager, and no one in 1994 has any idea what it means that he has to “plug in” his car.

Doc, as you would expect, is manically frazzled but basically fine. The Feds think he might be the “Unabomber” but can’t quite pin it on him. In his spare time, he has been hanging out with a fellow plutonium enthusiast named “A.Q. Khan.” When he encounters Marty, he can’t fathom why everything in the future is “lit” – “is there an unusually igniferous condition in the atmosphere in the early 21st century?”

Strange as 1994 is, when Marty starts to pay attention to the politics of the time, things begin to have an eerily familiar ring. Doc may be dumbfounded that “the casino guy with the gold-plated toilets who left his wife for the Wrestlemania girl” eventually got elected president (“Great Scott, this is even more ludicrous than President Reagan the actor!”) but Marty can see the shades of the future already.

The newspapers – and the new phenomenon of “talk radio” – are abuzz about a conservative Georgia Congressman named “Newt” whose scorching anti-establishment campaign is upending US politics, driving zero-sum culture wars straight into the heart of the national conversation. Gingrich’s strategy works – the GOP wins control of Congress for the first time since Marty’s original trip back in time to 1955. The airwaves are now crackling with partisan clashes over assault weapons, gay marriage, “political correctness,” and immigration – what year is this again?

Meanwhile, news of a massive new free trade agreement called NAFTA seems promising at a moment when history is supposed to be ending in neoliberal globalized nirvana. But McFly knows that for all its benefits, the pact will leave huge scars across parts of working-class America that will one day make their grievances felt.

What about the news from outside America? He flips on a newish channel called “CNN International.” Nelson Mandela has just become the first Black president of South Africa, a triumph for justice. At the same time, Marty learns that “the Ukraine” has agreed to give up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal. As part of the deal, Russia and the West promise that no one will ever invade Ukraine. Marty already knows how that ends.

Speaking of knowing how things end, Marty also hears that PLO boss Yassir Arafat has returned from exile to Gaza for the first time in nearly 30 years and that he’s started down the garden path of a “Peace Process.” Palestinian suicide attacks are becoming more frequent. Israel is ramping up illegal settlement construction. The Jewish state is normalizing relations with a major Arab power – in this case, Jordan.

Our 2024 Marty wants to grab these people in all of these stories by the collar and yell “Stop! Can’t you see where this is going?” But he has bigger fish to fry: He still has to get his parents to kiss at the high school dance. Luckily his rendition of the ‘94 chart-topper “Bump ‘n’ Grind” does the trick.

Now, let’s go to the future ourselves. If we accept the premise of “Back to the Future” – and we do – then one thing is certain: There is, at this very moment, a column just like this one being written in the year 2054.

The author of that column has just received – probably via some VR connection between two brains in jars – the same “Marty McFly meme.” In it, the trip is to 2024.

What does 2054 Marty see during his visit to our world? What seeds are we planting, and can we possibly know what harvest they’ll bring?

Let me know what you think. I’ll run the best answers after next week’s column. But go easy on yourself – after all, as a wise man once cautioned: “Since when can weathermen predict the weather, let alone the future?”


Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter