To the Future!Posted by ed in blog August 23, 2010
It was my pleasure and privilege last Thursday to participate in a brilliant event at the BFI; ‘Projecting the Future’, alongside the amazing artist (& founder member of the Pogues – how did I not know that!) Jem Finer and BT’s former futurologist Ian Pearson (self-proclaimed ‘inventor of text messaging’). Our polarized panel debates and ponderings were ably invigilated by Helen Heathfield of Julie’s Bicycle.
We were invited to respond to a bizarre series of film clips from the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, all of which were visionary glimpses of the future at the time, but understandably look rather odd, weird or downright misguided with the benefits of twenty-first century hindsight. As you can probably guess, because of all the work Futerra has done on the power of positive, future visions to capture people’s imagination (best embodied by ‘Sell the Sizzle’), I was fascinated to see how companies were propagandizing the future seventy years ago.
The first clip up was of a truly terrifying domestic robot, in which a patronizing and sexist (it was 1940 I guess) robot repairman (who had apparently come out in a not-so-space-age looking dressing-gown) blinded a bewildered house-wife with technical jargon. The huge ‘man in a tin suit’ robot, a mono-syllabic metal Neanderthal, was operated by a control panel on which all the key domestic labour-saving tasks had been distilled down to nine buttons. Beyond the obvious ‘Answer Door, Wash Dishes, Clean House etc’ these inexplicably included the strangely specific ‘Get Hat’ and rather more challenging ‘Fix Furnace’, as well as the all-purpose ‘Scram!’.
Left a little shaken by the intimidating hulk of ‘Roll-Oh’ we were then treated to ‘Kitchens of Tomorrow’ (1956). A glamorous house-wife literally danced around her techno-kitchen where total-automation meant her role was reduced to that of simpering spectator, thereby freeing up her precious time for…badly dressed sporting activities apparently. This obsession with labour-saving reminded me of the old Ben Elton sketch about the logical conclusion of Marks & Spencer’s washing, peeling and chopping of vegetables (‘They save you so much time!’) would be simply buying a turd in a plastic-tray, going home and flushing it straight down the toilet – thereby cutting out the middle-man (and of course…saving you SO MUCH time).
In ‘Landscapes of the Future’ we encountered a halcyon world without limits, where oceans teemed with ‘undreamed of abundance’, full of water that could be desalinated to green deserts. Where jungles were ready to be cleared and tamed into productive farmland for rearing cattle and where thrusting masculine bridges and tunnels plunged through nature’s mountains and ridges with the barely suppressed phallic symbolism of progress. Made in 1964 the film felt like an Ayn Rand ‘Atlas Shrugged’ campaign piece, oddly reminiscent of modern neo-conservative thinking that chooses to consciously ignore, dismiss or actively denigrate environmental evidence. In a world where deserts are increasing, the ocean’s productivity and ecology is on a knife-edge and the clear-felling of Amazon rainforest an all too worrying reality, the techno-fix oriented philosophy smacked of hopelessly naïve optimism.
The final film (which you can see above) was the infamous ‘Futurama’ (not the Simpsons sister act I hasten to add – although I am also a fan). Skip to 5 minutes or so into the clip for the bit we were shown. The first thing that struck me was the pontificating pompousness of the voice-over – a sonorous ‘This is how it shall be…in the future’ type of portentous tone, with the most horrific (futuristic?) jazz-noodling of a Hammond Organ going on in the background.
The ‘zoned’ city of tomorrow, where districts of commercial, residential and leisure activity are segregated for ‘efficiency and convenience’, reminded me of Woody Allen’s film ‘The Sleeper’. In this, Woody Allen’s character wakes from an extended coma a hundred years after slipping into it and is offered whisky and a cigarette by his Doctor. ‘But I don’t drink or smoke’ protests Woody at which point the Doctor chuckles and replies ‘Ah yes, you used to believe drinking and smoking were bad for you in the twentieth century – the complete opposite of what we now know to be true’. The unknowing sustainability errors of zonal development, traffic congestion, ghettoisation, increased need to travel, loom large in the film as the voice-over rather sinisterly describes how ‘undesirable slum areas and outmoded business areas are displaced’.
There were equally however some moments of inspired brilliance, such as the rotating hanger for dirigibles (I’m a well documents airship fan) that floats, somewhat mysteriously, on a ‘pool of liquid’ (water being far too mundane for THE FUTURE obviously), the smart segregation of traffic and pedestrians and the landscaped riverside parks that had replaced industry…instead of which we got Canary Wharf.
Our debates were fired by the notion of ‘progress’ that underpinned all these films. What is the point of development? Who benefits from it? Why are we obsessed with saving time and efficiency? Ian favoured a techno-optimism and inevitability of solutions such as massive genetic-modification of all life on our planet. Jem hymned an elegant simplicity of life that was depressed by Ian’s inexorable rumble of mechanization, digitalization and interference. Me? Being a sustainability buff I like to think the future is a mix of high and low technology, of what Schumacher called ‘appropriate technology’. Personally I like the intimacy of a ‘mundane household chore’ like cooking a meal, yet also love the technologies of renewable energy and many social aspects of the digital revolution.
In the end it was worth remembering who was behind the films we’d watched, most of which were produced by General Motors. There was a rich irony in the fact that the company that used to spend so much time attempting to engineer the future in it’s own interests (Futurama was enormously influential in driving car-based urban development models), has more recently driven (sorry) itself into extreme trouble by actively resisting change (reducing vehicle size, increasing fuel efficiency etc).
So who, if anyone, is generating the compelling positive visions of a future we might all aspire to now? One that might influence a sustainability agenda in the same way that Futurama drove an automobile future? Answers on a recycled postcard please! Now where’s my jet-pack…surely we were all supposed to have one of them by now?
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August 27, 2010
Being a sustainability buff I like to think the future is a mix of high and low technology, of what Schumacher called â€˜appropriate technologyâ€™. http://www.thomassaboschmucksa… |
Personally I like the intimacy of a â€˜mundane household choreâ€™ like cooking a meal, http://www.uggbootsladens.com/ | yet also love the technologies of renewable energy and many social aspects of the digital revolution. http://www.thomassabocharmemar…