A few weeks back at Internet Age Media weekend in Barcelona, I was asked by Andres Colmenares to talk about the Future of the Future, which is no small task. One of the barriers to effectively encountering and engaging with futures I discussed is the aestheticization of The Future—the obsession with the future as a look and feel, a mood board more than a time horizon.
It’s a thing that’s constantly invoked in pop culture, particularly now that technology is such a central pillar of this culture for many: a car or other mode of transport (see below), clothing, a new device, design of a particular building or living space, and so on. Generalist tech blogs and business media can be some of most frequent to invoke this aesthetic. They know their target consumers (mainly young, aspirational/affluent and male) flock to it.
This “future as aesthetic” seems most apparent among what I called the “futurephilic,” those who identify with the future as confirmation of a biased view of what it should look like—what is futuristic as defined by no longer extant art directors, designers and illustrators, a safe depiction of their youth.
Treating the future as a lens flare, chrome texture or video glitch lowers it to the level of an Instagram filter or Tumblr tag. For me (and you’re opinion may well differ), such a stance continuously loops us through a fetishized near past, a kind of fan fiction we’d like to see ourselves star in.
The issue is less about choice of visual aesthetic than mistaking form for function, packaging for product. Why? Because it narrows our vision of possible futures to the the beautiful, the pleasing, the powerful, the submissive, the controllable. The challenge of envisioning futures is not so much imagining the ones you want to see yourself in (there is time for that), but first imagining how you will live in the ones you can’t quite imagine. These are the probable futures that contain the powerless, the asymmetric, the dirty, the undesirable, the broken, the frictionful.
Reality is much more a mix, as illustrated by the FT snapshot below. A decade ago, you may have imagined something like the item on top: a flashy render of an amazingly marketed new form of mobility. While you were dreaming of that, did you think it might emerge in context of the fragmentation of historical political alignments, with a collapsing middle class and the rise of a new wave of demagogues? Did you imagine what you ate for dinner last night? Did it come from a tube, the market, or a rickety truck parked down the road?
It’s taxing work, considering how the mundane and the spectacular, the desirable and the unthinkable not only co-exist but co-operate to create the world we live in. It requires attention, tools, and dialogue (lots of the latter). But it’s worth it.