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Optimistic futurism


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So what the hell happened to the future?

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Optimistic futurism

  1. 1. Optimistic Futurism By Richard Seymour So what the hell happened to the future? Everything was going just fine Then came several global depressions, the giggling like a schoolboy because he’s turned in the early1950s, though much end of the Space Age, shrinking ozone layers, a bridge in Docklands into a living, breathing of Europe, Japan and the Soviet aeroplanes into buildings, Global Warming piece of mechanical ballet in front of yet Union was still flattened under a and, bingo, here we are. Comprehensively another haughty Richard Rodgers glasshouse. shroud of ash and broken bricks. screwed and wondering what we’re doingEven as the icy grip of the Cold War tightened, here. It’s exciting because I believe them.those of us that were growing up then, found If you look around the now, poking around in And it’s exciting because these people aretime to look with thrall and optimism into popular culture, you’ll usually find a doomy embracing big, complicated issues whichthe future. Men went to the moon and back, view of the future promulgated - from Japan’s affect all of us, not just running away into aTeflon and liquid crystals and lasers and manga and anime to your regular, everyday corner to design yet another salt and pepperVelcro changed our lives (as had nylon and news reviews, nihilistic, post-apocalyptic pot for an Italian luxury goods company.cellulose before them) and although life wasn’tunremitting fun, we could all sense a faint, visions prevail. And it’s exciting because, in this post-underpinning mantra: gradually, things were convergent world, we really can fix a lot of We just don’t seem to be able to shake offgetting better. the stuff that didn’t serve us well before. We this maudlin streak in Europe. The French, though, are an exception. And it comes from can make sure that impossible-to-programmeAnd then suddenly it stopped. an unexpected quarter. crap like VCRs don’t happen again. We canI’ve been trying to isolate the moment when connect ourselves to virtually anyone aroundit stopped for ages. Some say it was Jack France has a highly-developed adult cartoon the planet, for any number of reasons and forKennedy’s assassination. Others claim it culture, fuelled for a good thirty years by a fraction of the price. We can fix shopping forwasn’t a single moment at all, but a gradual the brilliant foresight of the likes of Bilal disabled people. We could even convert a busdecent into collective depression after the and Moebius (Jean Giraud), both graphic system into a book-your-seat personal limoSummer of Love didn’t make good on it’s novelists from the crucible of modern social service.THC-fuelled dreams. But as far as the UK is imagery: Metal Hurlant. And it is in this unlikely medium that France’s ‘optimistic futurism’ is We can do almost anything we can imagineconcerned, I’m absolutely sure I can trace it at it’s most obvious. Certainly, it has it’s dark now, if we put our minds to it. Which puts usback to a specific moment: moments but hidden within the pages of your squarely in the same position as our forebearsJanuary 1st 1974. average French cartoon you’ll find a core of were in the early 16th century, with a new age ebullient humanism trying to get out. of technology and capability stretching outThe ‘3 day week’ as it came to be known, a in front of us, as far as the eye can see, if wevirtual halving of industrial output, brought on It’s something we all need to see. only choose an energy crisis which arose from industrialaction over coal-mining in the UK, showed us Designers cannot be, by definition, pessimists. So now it’s no longer down to what we can doBrits that we could no longer be considered It just doesn’t go with the job. We’re supposed – it’s about what we should do. And that takesworld-class at all. We’d finally lost the ability to be defining the future, aren’t we? more than just imagination, it takes build big, exciting aeroplanes, Blue Streak, For instance, distributing power generation to Populating it with the kit and the buildings and the point of use, such as in the infrastructuresour own, much-vaunted, independant nuclear the décor that everyone else is going to move imagined in the Hydrogen economy, coulddelivery missile was a dead duck, our railways in to when they get there. If we can’t see the utterly revolutionise the way we live.were screwed and we couldn’t run a bath. world as a better place to live in, then whatWe suddenly realised we were crap. chance does anyone else have? It doesn’t have to be done all at once. We can do it a bit at a time and still win. EvenA couple of years before that, people had It’s exciting listening to genuine design apparently tiny changes can still make arun screaming from the initial screenings of optimists, like Apple’s Jonathan Ive, talk about phenomenal difference. In the US three years‘A Clockwork Orange’ claiming that such a how things are going to get progressively ago, five large schools got together to seebarbaric vision of a future dystopia couldn’t better. Easier. Faster. Simpler. Yummier. Or what impact that tiny folding, aluminium kidspossibly happen. Now the news slowly began Gordon Murray, waxing lyrical about how scooter had made to the school run. Theyto reveal that Little Alex’s ultraviolence was a he’s left McLaren to ‘sort out city mobility’. calculated the fuel saving over a year, wherehideous creeping reality. Or designer-come-wizard Tom Heatherwick, Mom wasn’t using the SUV to take junior to
  2. 2. Optimistic Furturism (cont)school, but walking with him scooting his up and design a really bad train, though, I’mlittle steed instead. They made a going to visit a trillion devils on thousandsphenomenal discovery. Over only five schools, of people for years to come.the fuel saving was an amazing 830,000gallons of gasoline, almost enough to drive a History tells us that before great businesscompact European car to the Sun! can happen, it first has to be a Mission. And a Mission starts with a Dream.There’s nothing on the planet that can’t bemade just that bit better (rather than just that As designers, we potentially hold enormousbit different). But before you do it, you need power. And with it comes have an idea where you want all this to go Wield it imaginatively and wisely.eventually, a vision of the future, with a set ofstepping stones to let you get from the now And optimistically.into the future in an effective and efficient way.Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, an exquisitely- Or fuck off and do something less dangerous.illustrated comic strip did this beautifully inthe 50s and 60s, portraying a virtually utopianfuture with recognisable ‘emotional signposts’along the way. The planet-hopping shuttlerocket in this picture is surrounded by batteredleather suitcases with ‘Mars’ stickers on them.That’s not because the illustrator/futurist FrankHampson lacked the vision to imagine theluggage of the future, it was just his little way There’s nothing on the planet that can’t be madeof saying: ‘It’ll be everything you dreamed just that bit better (rather than just that bit different).of, but with all your favourite, familiar stuffstill there’.And that’s what we should be doing: leadingthe way by visualising and articulatingachievable futures that get us out of this hole.I’m pretty sure Apple don’t call themselvesoptimistic futurists, but that’s exactly whatthey are. My favourite Steve Jobs one-lineris: ‘It’s not the consumers job to knowabout the future, that’s my job.’ And he’sabsolutely right.Jurassic corporations need to learn fromthe mammals. The secret of the ‘next bigthing’ isn’t lurking inside the ‘consumers’head, waiting to be liberated by some well-paid focus group. It’s inside the heads ofthe dreamers, the futurists, the Utopians.You and me.And sometimes we get despondent andknocked-back by the beancounters who tellus we’re wrong and that the ‘consumer’ isalways right. Or by the supply chain who sayit can’t be done. Or by the MD who can’tsee further than his own Excel spreadsheet.But the difference is that we’re the ones withthe imagination to see beyond what thingsare, which is why we applied for art college inthe first place, rather than accountancy or law.If I wake up depressed tomorrow and designa really bad poster for hair gel, who’s goingto give a damn? (other than the client). If I get The shape of things to come