Styling the future

What does the future look like? Does it matter? A piece of book karma prompts an attempt to amplify a thought I was trying to air last week. Talking to an audience at UCL, including quite a few old friends, I mentioned an idea which has come up here, and in other talks, a few times – that the accumulation of old futures has interesting effects on the way we respond (if we do) to current future talk.

The accumulation is real, and takes various forms – there are quite a few coffee table books. But it is most often encountered, I reckon, in websites, often very nicely curated ones, which feature images and designs from past futures efforts – Worlds Fairs, magazines, comics and so on. As I said on the night, hardly any need to illustrate these. Do a google image search for retrofuture or palaeofuture and you’ll get thousands of them.

Next day I called in on my favourite London odds and ends bookshop, Judd Street Books (don’t look there, incidentally, it’s in Marchmont Street). More or less the first title I set eyes on on the front table was this.

It is a beautifully crafted graphic novel, only published in 2009, which I unaccountably missed when it came out. The narrative is a little didactic, but the imagery covers much of the history of decayed futurity, and comments on it perceptively. There’s a clever, and also nicely realised, interwoven narrative of a made-up comic book which enriches the author’s take on the feelings which were in play in all the episodes he depicts so well, from the New York World’s Fair in 1939 – which I talk about as well – to the final Apollo moon landing in 1975.

I won’t summarise it, as plenty of others have – here and here for example.

But what I like about it is that it takes such trouble to go beyond the images. The very interesting discussion after the talk moved a few times to talk about imagery and design like this and how they get used now. And it seemed to me, though I didn’t formulate the thought clearly at the time, that this is part of the problem. The images are so easy to come by that folks get caught up in talking about the look and style of the future.

I love looking at these pix, but I don’t actually care what the future looks like, or much about changing fashions in futuristic design. What matters is surely how the future might feel, what past futures tales tell us about that and, if we can fathom them, what the mentalities of times past made of their imagined futures.

This book makes a good stab at representing that, going beyond and reworking the images. It has affinities with David Gelernter’s splendid but quirky Lost World of the Fair, but is more accessible. It is well worth getting hold of as a discussion starter.

Incidentally, and back to images again, the notes to the other book point to a fascinating compilation of visitor shot cine of the World’s Fair, at http://www.archive.org

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