Monday, November 3, 2008
The future sucks
Lately I've been fascinated by the futurism of the past, e.g. how people years ago viewed the future. What did they expect? What did they think the future would look like? What did they want to make out of their own futures?
One of the great examples of historical futurism is the movie "Metropolis", from 1926. Metropolis is considered one of the great masterpieces in cinema history - a truly visionary look at a dystopian future where a rigid caste system condemns the proletariat to lives of subterranean misery.
The future in Metropolis is 2026 - not too far away for us. The technology of Fritz Lang's vision isn't really very exciting - today we have lots of stuff he didn't dream of. And the Marxist-porn view of the economic future hasn't come about either.
But Metropolis reflected a fascination with the future common in the first half of the 20th century. There was a tremendous sense of hope and anticipation that there was a lot of future ahead. The future was everywhere back there in the past.
The Nazis were big on futurism - which might have been a result of the influence of Fritz Lang and other German visionaries of the immediate pre-Nazi period. They were really good at big, bold, stylish symbology - as was Franklin Roosevelt's new deal. The art deco future was right around the corner for almost everyone in the 1930s.
The ultimate expression of the future in the 1930s, of course, was the 1939 World's Fair in New York. It was that World's Fair that gave us "The World of Tomorrow" and "Futurama". The view of the future in Flushing was truly utopian, and truly industrial. It was exciting, and large, and optimistic:
What they didn't imagine in 1939 was the main feature of the actual future: the information revolution. (Although they did have TV:)
I fear we have lost that optimism for the future. Maybe it was innocence. Whatever it was, it would seem that the future is now here and we have no more hope or anticipation of what's going to happen next.
That's a very strange situation. Throughout recorded history there has been a sense that exciting things would happen in the future, but now it seems all our future is retro.
Our space program? We're going to rely on the Russians to get to our 1970s-technology space station on their 1960s-technology rockets. That's until we can try to duplicate our accomplishments of the 1960s and return to the moon.
Science fiction? It's mostly about recreation of the good science fiction of the 1960s (Star Trek) and 1970s (Star Wars).
Architecture? We can't even replace the World Trade Center.
The only things we really have that have made big difference are personal electronics and information technology. The ubiquity of integrated circuits and computing technology has really made a difference, but its mainly a personal difference. This blog, and the laptop, connected via wireless networking to the internet, that I'm using to write it, are about it for our future.
But the point is that we're not looking forward any more. At the 1939 World's Fair, there was so much to look forward to, that was just about to happen, that ordinary people couldn't even take it all in. (Of course there was also that big war coming up, but people were looking forward, away from the recent depression, anyway). There was the hope for travel, and exploration. For consumer technology and improvements in the standard of living. There was the constant hope that big, exciting things were just about to happen.
Today we fear the future and don't want to look at it. We see the future as a place that isn't as good as where we are, or where we just came from. There's a sense that the bright future that earlier generations looked forward to has recently come, and gone. There's lots of evidence that its true.
So what do we do? How can we make the future attractive again?
I think it takes imagination. We need people with creativity, like Philo T. Farnsworth or Gene Roddenberry, to show us a future that's worth living in. The great advances of the 20th century didn't just happen - they resulted from people who had the will to make their imaginations real.
The future could be bright - if we could find a few bright people to illuminate it.