Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Retrofuture

It's always a strange experience to look at past predictions of what the future would be like.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression made people think that the future would be worse, because there was no sign that it would ever, ever end. People predicted more economic nightmares, death by robots, fascist control of the entire earth, and so on. Few people were predicted to survive. Those that did would presumably look forward to being dead.

In the 1950s, fresh from allied victory and excited about space, people predicted an optimistic future. An article talks about a typical family from the year 2000. They wear suits made of what looks like plasticized metal, live on the moon, and eat re-hydrated foods, if not outright food pills. (Which one was depicted depended on the writer). Of course, human imagination being what it is, the predicted future-tech looked very much like logical extensions of 1950s technology, with a tad more automation. People still cooked food in ovens, pushed vacuum cleaners, and prepared two children for school, a boy with straight blond hair, and a girl with curled brown hair, a skirt, and a rag doll. TV remains the rage, in slightly smaller cabinets and still black and white. Russia would remain as a rival, remaining neither beaten nor victorious.

In the 1980s, America's economy was down, and Japan's was up. Every prediction of the future then involved Japanese domination. If America was not predicted to be outright conquered, it was predicted to be economically dependent. All the corporations would be Japanese. All your bosses would be Japanese, and you'd better hope for your continued employment's sake that you knew how to communicate with him or her. It was also predicted that a cultural absorption would occur. This idea was only scuttled in the mid-90s, when Japan itself collapsed economically and America recovered. Japanese culture remains famous with America's nerds, but not for the same reasons.

In all of these, fashion is predicted fixed at their own point, paradigm shifts are unnoticed, and the era's big obsession is assumed to be a permanent driving fixture from then on. This failure of human imagination is one reason why I don't want to imagine the future. The 1930's writer couldn't conceive of microwaves, be they used in a cooking device or communications, the 1950's writer could not understand the very concept of the personal computer, nor the collapse of the Soviet Union. That space travel would seem passe after a few important landmarks had been reached did not resonate. (And people were quite willing to endure the expense when national prestige was on the line, but very unwilling once no further bragging rights could be extracted.) The very idea of the Internet would have seemed actively insane before 1980 or so. (Yes, ARPAnet existed, but few people even knew what that was.)

So if you'd ask me to predict the future, I predict that by 2015, some new thing will occur that will change the way that we see the world. I cannot predict what field it will be in. I cannot predict how fashion will change, other than what is currently favored will seem dumb and something different will be favored. (Not necessarily new, fashion sometimes has retro-moments where fashion is copied from an earlier era.) I predict that the US 2012 election will slightly favor Democrats over Republicans, and the 2016 election will favor Republicans, if they haven't destroyed themselves by then.

I predict the election the way I do because US politics tends to be cyclical. People slowly get angry with one party's errors until that party can no longer succeed and loses power. There only tends to be two parties at any given time because of the way the electoral system works. If one party gets too far out of touch with the populace at large, it fails until completely destroyed, and some other party typically rises to take its place. The first party to be destroyed was ironically the founder's own. The Federalist party's positions had become completely moot by 1820, and it died, replaced by the Whig party.

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