The reassuring weight of futures past

A lengthy post here earlier this year ruminated on how much old futures stuff people now have access to, and catalogued some of the sources. What does it all mean, though? Some further thoughts on that come to mind, to do with persistence and repetition.

Old visions of the future persist in two ways. One is that they are preserved and curated – most often on the web but also in books and exhibitions.

When they are displayed in this way, what usually seems to happen is that they are, if not held up to ridicule exactly, treated as more amusing than anything else. The old futures are regarded with some affection, but not really taken seriously. Jokiness is the order of the day.

The other form of persistence is that, in spite of the above, they are continually reproduced and developed – in both fiction and non-fiction. There has been a news story about a flying car being almost ready for launch every couple of months since I started noticing them, for example. And there are innumerable hopeful/fanciful visions of future cities – more ecologically benign than previous such visions, but perhaps equally unlikely.

Of course there are ways of responding to the inescapable awareness of the weakness of past predictions which avoid prediction – scenario writing is the most popular. Scenarios catch the attention as we are so saturated in story-telling so it is always a way of helping people understand what might happen.

But media are averse to caveats, probabilistic statements, and ranges. They tend to highlight the

worst case scenario as though it were a prediction – if not in the body of the story, then in the headline. Think of the discussion of climate change, flu pandemic, terrorism, food security, or the world economy.

In the media, futurists will be browbeaten into giving quotable predictions even when they are trying not to, and heard as making them even when they have refrained from anything of the kind. Otherwise, in general, there isn’t a story. This applies to the upbeat predictions as well as “apocalypse soon” stories.

And, of course, they will generally turn out to be wrong…

All of this casts discussion of futures today in an odd light, and creates a mood which I’m finding it hard to characterise.

It is partly nostalgia of a bitter-sweet kind. These are the futures we (North-Americans pre-eminently, but not them alone) were promised, and some of us believed in. The classic exhibits now represent something which we see as unattainable. In that connection I think one can ignore the commentaries which lay out how some of them can still be reached. Assume they are just tomorrow’s past futures. (see the flying car).

I think there’s at least one other thing going on, though. There is a reassuring quality to this particular brand of nostalgia. The mood is not just regret for a future which never came. There is also an element of satisfaction in reviewing all the futures which never came about. Cataloguing failed predictions makes it OK to take current predictions less seriously. To my mind, this is a problem for futures work in general. The bigger the cultural backlog of futuristic images, the less likely they seem. You can come away from a survey of such images intrigued, provoked, amused, or basically unimpressed. But it is hard not to develop a sense that the future is always impossible to pin down, and likely to be more complex, ambiguous, and protean than any attempt to imagine it.

That relates to reassurance because of the predominance of Bad Things in current visions of the future. If we do not have to believe in the old, attractive (in some ways) futures, perhaps we do not have to credit the prophets of collapse, either? Of course there are plenty of pessimistic predictions from the past which never came to pass either, which are often cited to the same effect. Though there it is worth remembering that the majority of the forecasts which descend from The Limits to Growth see collapse happening some time in the middle of this century…

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