Technology Review author and MIT professor Henry Jenkins recently saw Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and reading Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. The two indicate a new feel about the future, he argues in his essay, The Tomorrow That Never Was.
Both want to bring us back to the future. Sky Captain uses state of the art digital technologies to reconstruct the popular American imagination, circa 1939; No Towers tells a personal narrative of September 11 through iconography drawn primarily from early twentieth century comic strips. No Towers makes explicit what Sky Captain leaves implicit– the idea that we are returning to images from the past to cope with our uncertainty about the future.
Let’s call it retro-futurism. Science fiction, post 9/11, has offered little by way of alternative visions of the future beyond more of the same. Perhaps the only way forward is to retrace our steps….
We might think of retro-futurism as a séance where ghosts of the past come out to speak to our present concerns – reassuring us that we may never get the tomorrow of our dreams but we also never face the future of our fears. Nostalgia, Susan Stewart has written, is a desire to return to a world that never really existed. Is it possible to feel nostalgia for the future?
Jenkins is writing about popular images of the future, but people who try seriously to think about what the future could be are subject to some of the same big influences.
This is expressed at two levels. At one level, the scenarios we create can be read as intersections of what we think is important, and what clients and audiences are most interested in. (Almost inevitably, there's a tension between the three. Futurists want to take a long view; patrons prefer to stay closer in; and general readers are sometimes disappointed if they don't get radical predictions– "we'll all have telepathic implants by 2020!")
At another level, our work also reflects more the basic assumptions about the relationship between present and future, and the degree to which the latter can be understood. Prediction is an ancient art, but from what I can tell, until pretty recently the questions people asked of oracles reflected an assumption that the future would broadly be like the past. You wanted to know whether the spring rains would come, or whether you would grow rich. You tended not to ask whether the climate would change, or whether your regional economy was going to shift from agriculture to services. The uncertainties in life derived from natural disasters and human personality; they weren't by-products of human industry.
Will it be back to the future for futurists, too? I seriously doubt it. Nothing ages as quickly as old futures: the home of the future as envisioned in the 1950s looks nothing like today's home, or the home of the future that we imagine today. For us, there's nowhere to go but forward.