Everybody knows Vancouver the Beautiful. It's the first thing outsiders mention when you tell them you live here "Ah," they say knowingly whether they've ever seen it or not, "Vancouver is a beautiful city." That the rumors are true is good news for the summer tourist market, but this city has come to a curious place in its young history. It wants to be more than just another pretty face. It wants to be world class.
People here talk about it all the time. If they're writing to the editor to complain about tap water, they add that surely a real world-class city would have better reservoirs. If they call a radio talk show to gripe about traffic, they ask whether the citizens of a real world-class city would tolerate such clogged streets. Actually the drinking water and traffic are not that bad, and the residents know it. They realize that most world-class cities would love to trade for Vancouver's sanitation and road conditions. What they're really doing with all the world-class talk is expressing an undefined anxiety about the future.
This is a city in transition, growing up all of a sudden. It used to be a quirky workaday port at the end of one of the world's longest roads, Canada's version of California, the last stop for loose loggers, fishermen, hippies and anything in between that wasn't socially nailed down. In some ways it still is. But in the last few years Vancouver has also turned 180 degrees towards Asia. It now buzzes with an East-meets-West vibe unique to the world. Every month more glass-and-concrete waterfront condos sprout up like Kowloon transplants while neighbors not far away mow lawns in front of Victorian estates. Boys still play street hockey the good old Canadian way but are now just as likely to argue the goals in Punjabi. The Vancouver School Board, one keen eye on the future, offers immersion lessons in Mandarin to non-Chinese schoolchildren who want to get ahead. The local economy is in flux too. Logging operations are being cut back and fish stocks are dwindling. The freighters off Stanley Park beaches point to the city's role as a leading port working the Pacific Rim, but the serious money today moves via keyboard and modem. That makes Vancouver, where you can dial in to Europe in the morning and Asia in the afternoon, an electronic port of choice.
It also helps that all of this is happening in a temperate rain forest, that you can, if you want to test a cliche, ski in the morning and sail in the afternoon, that the streets are relatively safe and the locals generally friendly.
The flip side is that the secret is out. Compared to Vancouver a lot of other cities seem crowded, dirty or dangerous. So newcomers continue to pour in. Estimates range from the city doubling its half-million population in 15 years to bazillions of settlers flooding the vicinity for miles around.
If Vancouver can be taken as a city of the future, it made sense to look at it today through the eyes of those on the innovative edge, the cybercommunity. This is, after all, where William Gibson coined the term 'cyberspace" and Douglas Coupland wrote Generation X. Where the new library was built two years ago to look like the Coliseum but with space between its floors to wire more than 700 computers together. Where ads for the new condos lure buyers with promises of the fastest Internet connections in town. It also made sense to start with "Dr. Tomorrow."
Frank Ogden is 76 but could pass for 60, perhaps proving that optimism is therapeutic. Or that technology can build a better man: the ever-upbeat futurist calls himself a "cyborg" because of a surgically implanted, intro-ocular bionic lens. Ogden makes his living from clever lines in books and speeches about what we should expect next, all packaged in a provocative and sometimes overblown feat of self-promotion. The name 'Dr. Tomorrow" is trademarked. The good thing about him is that he doesn't just talk about the future. He does his best to live it. He started by autographing his latest work for me, The Last Book You'll Ever Read and Other Lessons From the Future, with a pen that writes in ink infused with his own DNA. Try forging that signature.
We met downtown on his floating cottage in Coal Harbor, with views of Stanley Park on one side and yet another new condo development on the another. Ogden's houseboat was gadget heaven, the kind of wired playpen you might expect if George Jetson met Gilligan. The fridge heats the cozy bedroom/office along with an infrared oil painting of a jungle hanging on the kitchen wall. A video camera monitors his pet bird via the Internet when he's abroad. The robot gathering dust in a corner could have brought us drinks but Ogden tired of that parlor trick years ago. We sat to talk beside a wall stocked to the ceiling with computers, phones, faxes, modems, video machines and various unidentified blinking boxes, all keeping Ogden in touch with the outside world.
Dr. Tomorrow has lived and traveled in Spain, Italy, Germany, Kenya, Fiji, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Costa Rica and a lot of other places. With his satellite connections and speedy Net hookups and video conferencing capabilities he could live anywhere. I wondered why he chose Vancouver. "It's the first city in the world already in the 21st century," he explained. "By the year 2000 more than half the world population will be Asian. Of the 20 largest cities on earth, not one will be in North America or Europe. The future is Asia, but Asians are not going to stay there any more than Europeans stayed in Europe. We're seeing it happen already in Vancouver. It's no longer a place, it's a process.
Ogden said it was an advantage for people in Vancouver to have it happen here first because the future belongs to those who can adapt. So far we were doing well. He said that Vancouver residents now walk faster than they used to, trading a laconic Canadian stroll for the more bustling pace of urban Asia.
"The Industrial Age gave us the haves and the have-nots," he warns. "But this new age is giving us the know and the know-nots. If you know, you're going up-stream. If you're a know-not, you're falling into the land of the techno-peasant." Ogden says the key to surviving the next chaotic 20 years is to "learn to dance with electrons and navigate in a cloud of data."
This is fine for someone already wired, but how do the digitally illiterate get plugged in? They can start early, for one thing, by attending a cyber-kindergarten. I visited the WizZone, a school for tiny webmeisters in North Vancouver. The polite young owner, Dave King, explained that parents these days are anxious to know that their kids aren't going to end up the slow ones on the techno-block. So they're sending them to private courses at places like the WizZone, where computer lessons are held for those as young as three.
What can you teach a toddler?
"Not that much," admitted King. "At that age it's mostly play, but it's educational play rather than games in which they're expected to blow each other up." -- Wingspan 1998