Retrofuturism Revisited: The Past Imagines the Future
Flying cars! Spinning buildings! Voice AND color! …or what Disney has to do with Eve.
By Maria Popova
Last year, we looked at the 2020 Project, which invited some of today’s sharpest thinkers to imagine tomorrow. But how will their visions look to future generations? To get a taste for it, we looked to the past: Here are 6 charming visions for the future, from the past — a delightful exercise in retrofuturism that embodies humanity’s chronic blend of boundless imagination, solipsistic foolishness and hopeless optimism.
THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL
In 1936, Japanese magazine Shonen Club published World Transportation Invention Competition — an illustrated series envisioning the future of transportation, based on concepts by inventors from around the world. From high-speed monorail to tank-like battle boats to a car with spherical wheels, the images embody a fascinating blend of technological urgency and artistic imagination.
WALT DISNEY’S TOMORROWLAND
Last month, we featured Walt Disney’s Man In Space — an entire series of retrofuturist visions for space exploration, part of his Tomorrowland program. In the following mashup, digital artist David Phillips remixes footage from the program to capture Disney’s legendary optimism about the future.
CLOTHING OF THE FUTURE
In the 1930s, Pathetone Weekly asked leading fashion designers to imagine women’s clothing in the year 2000. From an electric belt that adapts the body to climatic changes to a wedding dress made of glass to an electric headlight “to help her find an honest man,” the Eve of tomorrow is as delightfully retrofuturistic as they come.
As for [the man], if he matters at all, there won’t be any shaving, colors, ties or pockets. He’ll be fitted with a telephone, a radio, and containers for coins, keys and candy for cuties.”
Just about describes your average Brooklyn hipster.
HALLUCINATORY ARCHITECTURE OF THE FUTURE
Dark Roasted Blend, one of our favorite portals for eclectic interestingness, has a wonderful roundup of “hallucinatory architecture of the future” — architectural retrofuturist urbanism that leans on the side of the far-fetched.
VISIONS OF THE FUTURE
Vision as well as sound, oh my! When British telecommunication giant BT imagined the future of communication technology — from videoconferencing to high-definition document transmission — they made their most conceptually innovative proposition, the notion of telecommuting, with a kind of facetiousness most ironic in the context of today’s remote-everything workplace.
Given all these facilities, the businessman will scarcely need to go to his office at all. He can do all his work in the comfort of his own home.”
In 1980, a TV segment entitled Telefuture envisions a world of television-based information services. While at its core lies a fascinating and, in retrospect, remarkably accurate exploration of the exponential progression of technology — including transmedia experiences that even modernity can’t get quite right, like Internet TV — the excitement and language used to describe technologies we now find primitive is a disarming source of amusement. We held it together quite admirably, until the vintage-voiced man described basic 8-bit diversions as “incredibly complex games” — at that point, through tears of laughter, we wonder how his vocabulary of superlatives would hold up against the latest Halo 3 or Guitar Hero.
But don’t think of it just as a receiver of programs from networks or local stations — it’s becoming a central display terminal, able to show pictures from a growing number of electronic sources, including traditional broadcast stations, 40 or more channels of cable television, video cassette recorders with timers to record programs to watch at your convenience, video disc machines that don’t record but play back records of films, specials and so on, and games people play, incredibly complex games now programmed into your sets by small cassettes or cards or memory discs.”
For some quality present-day retrofuturism, we highly recommend What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science — a fantastic, and not necessarily fantastical, anthology of 18 essays by leading scientists across evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience and psychology exploring the future of ethics and the human mind.
Published January 11, 2011