One of my favourite airports in the world is Charles De Gaulle in Paris. Its sweeping concrete lines and internal transport tubes seem to promise an optimistic super sleek future that even decades later, never seemed to quite materialise. Certainly, I’m sure the original designers of the airport would have sooner conceived of space faring jets docking by 2011, rather than having to herd flocks of discount airlines and their attendant rabble of dollar diving tourists. I’m not saying that the future is more likely to be easyJet than than Jetset – but what is interesting is how our perceptions of the ‘futuristic’ are really an embodiment of our hopes and fears about the present. You could almost argue that there is an archaelogy of the future just waiting to be explored.
Some time ago I came across a wonderful clip of Orson Welles narrating a documentary based on Alvin Toffler. From its psychedelic opening titles, to its melodramatic opening featuring Welles walking down an airport terminal smoking a cigar – it seeks to astonish with an array of now mundane statistics of rapid change. Of course, it is easy to laugh at yesterday’s future visions, but I wonder how well turgid web virals like ‘Did You Know?’ will hold up to scrutiny in ten years time?
Predicting the future is hard enough. But even more tricky is finding ways to talk about it. Futurists have to walk the precarious line between highlighting the forces that will genuinely change the word, and the ones that sound like they will. Imagine being a futurist fifty years ago and identifying penicillin, refrigeration and shipping containers as the three forces that would underpin modern civilisation. Neither very sexy nor a great theme for selling books – and even if you turned out to be right, no one would remember it. I’d argue that we still revere theorists like Marshall Mcluhan today, not because he accurately predicted the future – but because, like Andy Warhol – he managed to combine stylish self promotion with enough ambiguity, that even years later – we can adapt his slogans to whatever point we are trying to make. Future Schlock indeed.