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.


Anne C. said...

"Architecture? We can't even replace the World Trade Center." Meh, the WTC is being built by a developer. Developers are almost *never* forward thinking. It's much safer and cheaper to do things the same old way.
Building technology is moving forward (slowly) in the areas of sustainable design and automated building systems.
There's also advancement in the design of building. We're working in system called Building Information Management, which builds a 3D version of the building.

And if you really want to see quicker advancement in architecture, don't look in the USA.

John the Scientist said...

Anne - I think you just proved CW's point. Advances are being made incrementally, and in IT / design software, not in the designs themselves. Sustainable design is not a forward-looking movement - it merely hopes to preserve the present level.

Art Deco, goofy as it was, said something about the people who espoused it. They had a hope for the future. We've lost a lot of that.

I remember how many kids in my elementary school were excited by space. I had technical manuals from the Shuttle before it was unveiled, and I remember the piggy-back flights on the 747 of the full-sized model that's in the Smithsonian.

But there's no forward vision like that now. I think it shows in our lackluster architecture.

Anne C. said...

No, Art Deco was applied art and means exactly zip. It's analagous to you producing a pink pill to do "X" vs. a yellow pill to do the same thing.

If we keep building with the attitude that buildings are disposable, we will end up with the junk heap that was in Wall-E. That is the extrapolated line from our present attitudes and THAT is the no change scenario. Changing our values and developing technology that reflect those values is, in my opinion, progress and gets us off that straight line. To say that people who are working towards getting us out of the rut we've been in for nearly 100 years is a disservice to those who want to improve the human condition.

Your mindset says to me that you would get turned on by translucent concrete (a very real product) or buildings with floors that twist on an axis or are modular (see Asian/Mideast theoretical architecture for both of these), but in my mind, it means nothing if it doesn't contribute time/space/money/psychological value to the people who interact with it.

BTW, the most liminal architecture is only produced as theoretical work in books. No one wants to spend 100 billion dollars on a skyscraper-city that is self sustaining if they can't be sure they'll make money off of it. Architecture is expensive to experiment with. (No testing programs there!)

CW said...

Hmmmm.... First off I need to caveat my original post: I meant to include biology as one of the few areas that has continued to move forward in recent years, thanks to the infusion of advances made in physical sciences. I hope that continued momentum isn't starting to dissipate, but I'm worried.

Next I also meant to discuss how some of the physical sciences have become bizarrely politicized, to the detriment of the science itself. Climatology is the most obvious example there, but I fear biology could fall into that trap too.

Finally, I'm not sure Anne got my point about architecture. It isn't that there haven't been advances in design and application, but that there has been a loss of imagination and audacity in many places. One place where they still have that imagination and audacity is the United Arab Emirates. That's where the world's most ambitious architecture is currently being built. But the World Trade Center took a lot of imagination and audacity the first time it was built, and today the developers who make the decisions just say "we don't want the headache and risk". Just like NASA, and the rest of the government, and the country, has said "we don't want the headche and the risk" associated with space travel.

John makes some huge points. I remember the excitement of the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle (which I recognized as probably a poor compromise at the time) and there's nothing like it today. When there is the slightest hint of something exciting - like the National Aerospace Plane or the Delta Clipper - it is short lived and dissolves in a depressing mush of bureaucracy and unmet expectations.

Also I disagree that Art Deco was only applied art and therefore meaningless. "Streamline Moderne" (maybe my favourite school of art deco) inspired generations of aerospace designers and engineers to push the edges of the envelope.

But I do agree that the area where we need to rekindle the imagination and audacity is in energy and the environment. I've been horrified for a long time, and continue to be horrified by our awful stewardship of the environment and our unconscionable waste of finite energy resources. If we don't fix that situation, we won't have a future of any kind.

I'm not sure if I conveyed my theme very well in the original post. John did a great job of explaining it better than me. It is this: ultimately advances in civilization, whether technological or social, come from hope - hope that those advances are possible - and I am afraid we are now running very short on the sort of hope we need to keep moving forward.

Anne C. said...

CW, I understand what you mean about Art Deco inspiring you, but honestly, it is "just" art. It was a playful conversation between buildings and technology and the future. A similar thing happened with car design in the 50s and 60s. You don't consider fins and chrome to be great advancements in car manufacturing, do you?

The part I do agree with you is that Art Deco reflected a confidence (and therefore an optimism) about the future that also showed up in the science fiction of the early part of the 20th century. As a reflection of the times and an inspiration, Art Deco is not meaningless, but it is not a movement forward in and of itself. MUCH more meaningful was the break in architectural dogma that was the bauhaus movement and organic architecture. Both of these were fundamental changes in how people thought about buildings. To me, Art Deco & Art Neveau & Post Modernism & Federalist & Neoclassical are always going to be applied arts. Valuable as a cultural barometer, but reactionary, not proactive.

And your statement about architecture being uninspiring is pretty US-centric, as I'm sure you're aware. Looking at the current work being done in Asia or Europe shows considerable inspiration. Their advancement is for two different reasons. In Asia, the oil industry has money to burn. It's not an accident that Dubai is where most of the cool building is being done. In Europe, however, they are maxxing out on their resources. They must make things better. (And they value different things than Americans do.) Whether or not the European modern style does it for you or not is another question. Frankly, the US is not on the cutting edge of things -- we're way too conservative for that.

Ultimately, as a person who makes buildings and works for developers who always want something for nothing, I get frustrated that making things better is not an acceptable end in itself. Then again, it's not my 75 million on the line. What you're asking people to do (and not regular people like myself) is to take more risks with their money (that's tough to do with an economy like this one) or for the government to subsidize exploration (again, tough to do when they don't spend enough on education).

You know, I just figured out why you brought up Art Deco and we started talking at cross purposes. You were talking about architecture as an art that reflects the times. This is true. However, I've been talking about architecture as the science of building. I understand where you're coming from, but I'm not sure whether I should feel insulted or not. No wonder you (or was it John?) don't think we're moving forward. Any "technology" developed in the field of architecture would be analagous to the development of air-brushing or digital art, an interesting thing, but not of value unless the art that is being created by it inspires future astronauts and physicists.

This explains a lot about the world.

Anne C. said...

Heh. I just skimmed over CW's original post and find that I have been pulled off on a tangent.

I actually don't disagree with you (except on the subject of the future in architecture). You and John are right that the current attitude towards the future is one of fear. If we make analogies to the beginning of the previous century, we could say the 80s are like the 20s, full of excess and hubris, now we're in the midst of the 30s, with economic hardships and fear run governments. I don't know if this analogy includes a world war, but it seems to me that when we start climbing out of the economic and environmental hole, we'll find that the attitudes toward the future will improve.

Sorry I got all twisted around another issue. It may be other, similar conversations affecting my reactions.

CW said...


This is a very interesting discussion.

I'm glad, I think, that you got my original point about art reflecting the hope or inspiration of the times (or lack thereof).

I don't know if you agree with me or not about the link between art and technology development, though.

Art and design definitely (I think) influence the advancement of technology - I've talked to many engineers and designers who told me they added design features or developed new technologies to mimic what they saw or learned from art. The car designs of the 50s and 60s were inspired by the engineering of the "jet age", which had previously been inspired by the science fiction and art of the 20s and 30s, etc etc. The fins and chrome weren't functional on the cars, but they sure were on the aircraft and spacecraft. And the aircraft got them originally from the imagination of the designers a generation earlier, who were in turn inspired by what was going on around them.

If you look at the state of the art in airplanes in 1930 (such as the Sikorsky S-40) and 1940 (like the Me-262), it is clear that something extraordinary happened in a very short time.

As for architecture, I am pretty ignorant, and definitely western-centric. I've been to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and seen the crazy stuff they're building there, and my thought was those people have (a) hope and (b) money that seems to be mostly missing in our own culture.

Because I'm ignorant, I'm not able to clearly relate my thoughts (about the reflection of cultural psychology in art and design) to architecture very well.

Certainly I think the technology of construction has advanced, perhaps largely attributable to American ingenuity, but I don't see us building much that's very inspiring these days (like that big crazy ship-hotel in Dubai)

I have the sense that the west used to lead the world in many cultural or psychological ways (perhaps reflected in architecture or art) and that leadership has dissipated in many areas. When I googled "European Modern architecture", many of the examples that came back were in China.