History of the future
Note: back in 2009, I had a conversation with then director of La Maison d’Ailleurs — a museum of science fiction, utopias and extraordinary voyages in Yverdon-les-Bains (Switzerland) — Patrick J. Gyger on the way the future has been dealt with throughout history. By popular request, I hereby repost the interview as the blog meanwhile went offline.
At the  LIFT conference in Geneva, Patrick J. Gyger, director of La Maison d’Ailleurs — the museum of science fiction, utopias and extraordinary voyages — in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, took us on an inspiring trip through the history of the future. Patrick is a historian specialized in medieval studies with a huge appetite for the way people envision possible future worlds. Among many other things, Patrick was one of the co-managers of the European Space Agency’s study on Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications — a research and educational project looking into science fiction to find ideas for space engineers.
We invited Patrick to join us for an interview and share with us some of his thoughts on the way in which people envision the future. Enjoy!
Nik (Baerten — Pantopicon): As was also made clear during several of the talks over at LIFT09, including your own, some of our most deeply engrained visual and conceptual connotations with the future — e.g. intelligent kitchens, flying cars, etc. — are about the dreams that never came through. To which extent is that a sad thing or exactly what attracts and thus drives us to explore and envision the future?
Patrick: Planning, therefore imagining the future, has of course always been around as a human trait (although this chimp here has surprised everybody). But if we stick to recent history, it is really after the industrial revolution that the notion emerges that the future has to be constructed as a better place (not really a place in time, as it is not defined as such). We know that the notion of progress in general is a recent concept, mostly when it comes to linking technological progress and social progress. Utopian thought and science fiction have been closely connected to this perspective, with works like Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (1888). But where Bellamy’s future would bring social improvement to the masses, consumerism has tried to drive people to improve their own personal life (in the future) by the acquisition of new goods, just for themselves … So, really, there is no real embedded attraction to the future as a better place for me. It is a constructed cultural phenomenon.
So, is it a sad thing that past visions of the future didn’t happen? Well, I think they mostly did, but in a different form. And the problem is that dystopian visions of the future happened too. Basically, I think we really live in the best and worst worlds at the same time.
Nik: What I meant was that it could be regarded as sad by some that our ‘first, top-of-mind connotations with the future are of the kind of things that didn’t happen’. That they didn’t happen as they were portrayed or didn’t happen as all is perhaps not even that important. What I do find interesting is that the ‘top 10′ things people shout when you ask them what they think about when you say ‘future’ are exactly those things.
Patrick: Indeed. That’s because people have been drilled to think in certain images, through advertising, TV shows, etc. I think, and/or simply tend to answer in terms of clichés …
Nik: Perhaps one could say that these are the cases in which the imagination of a few overwhelms and blocks the imagination of others. Sometimes certain images prove so strong that for those who’ve come in touch with them, they becomes blinded by them and can no longer see alternatives. The Apple knowledge navigator comes to mind in this respect as do some of the figure-ground images from Gestalt psychology.
However, people like Alex Steffen, Richard Anderson & Peter Lunenfeld have all shared a plea to develop and discuss more optimistic images of the future. How do you look at the role of future images in challenging times like the ones we are living now? For those willing to draft optimistic futures, what would you advise them and for which pitfalls would you warn them?
Patrick: I think optimistic visions of the future are essential, because we need images and prospects that can help us define our daily actions in an environment that is rather complex, but also where we are pushed only in a limited amount of directions (forward, supposedly). But to me, it is essential not to imagine futures which simply have extra layers of technology on the top of our present. The future is not about addition, it is about choice. So the pitfalls are really on the one hand techno-optimism and naivety about how an information driven society would improve things, and on the other hand regressive utopian visions of going back to the country and eating products that we grow ourselves. It’ll be hard to navigate between those clichés and find an original perspective.
Nik: What you mention is exactly one of the reasons why we try to stimulate people to think through different scenarios on the future, none of which will probably eventually materialize. They do however help to stretch people’s minds to think about alternatives, to question their assumptions, to assess the future from different angles and respect its complexity, many of which they or any individual group of people perhaps has any grip on.
Patrick: That’s absolutely brilliant and quite what I think is needed: to present people with vast possibilities, multiple scenarios and, well, choices somehow.
Nik: I think you also point to the ways in which the broader range of socio-cultural, economic, ecological, political or institutional developments, intertwingle and shape reality, shape our future. In your opinion, do you think contemporary images of the future differ from so called retrofuturistic images in this respect? Do they cover broader grounds?
Patrick: Contemporary images of the future are maybe slightly more subtle than what we could see 50 or 70 years ago, or at least appear to be so. Current images might seem to cover broader grounds, but actually, most images of the future have to simplify the vision of what they represent in order to make them more striking and useful. Noone is interested in changes of small detail; as in utopias, authors ‘have to’ present us with radical transformations of our society. This was already the case 70 years ago, but they seem to be a bit more narrow than today mostly because they focussed — perhaps rather unilaterally — on consumer goods.
Nik: When we look at the way in which most companies ‘broadcast’ their future visions these days, they still seem to rely heavily on product (hence technology) centric views of the future. Visual futurists like Syd Mead however emphasize the importance of the scenario when sketching images of the future, the dynamic context (socio-cultural, economic, political, etc.) shaping and being shaped by new possibilities and threats opened up by technological advances. How do you look at the relationship between the future and the context, drivers through which it is shaped?
Patrick: The reason why Mead’s visions were striking were because he understood the transformative power of products and technology. So, context is more than just that: it is central to the discourse. What we want to see changed are our environment, our societies, our interactions. Who cares about a new cellphone per se? This is the reason why we need different societal visions of the future. The idea conveyed by science fiction and advertising in the mid 20th-century that you can have a flying car in your garage or a robot at home, and that things will simply be better, really ought to be dropped once and for all.
Nik: La Maison d’Ailleurs houses an impressive collection on the life and work of Jules Verne. To many people he remains the future thinker par excellence. What makes him so special according to you? Who are some of the most interesting future minds today according to you and why?
Patrick: The reason why Verne is very important is because he didn’t think that much about the future, but about the present: the dangers and the opportunities of technologies (but also political opinions, ideas, etc. in general) around him served as his main sources (his books almost never happen in the future btw). That is the lesson to me: in order to inspire people, to try and drive them into a future that can be of their choice, you have to be able to decypher the present.
Among the interesting future minds today, I could mention Nicolas Prantzos, Luc Schuiten, as well as many science fiction writers. People like KW Jeter or Norman Spinrad have influenced me a lot for instance. But most of these references are from 10 years ago. It is indeed easier to let some time pass by before saying who is important as a futurist writer …
What interests me in those examples and what I think are good futurist writers are two things mostly: the fact that they are daring and do not fear to present radical transformations of our society or wide ranging changes. But they are also about something else which is easy to explain but very hard to achieve: the ability to write an original development one step ahead of the current Zeitgeist. These creators I mention are fascinating because they present you with something not at all that radically different, but not exactly in sync with current trends either.
Nik: From an aesthetic point of view, retrofuturism could be regarded a style featuring a specific way of looking at and depicting the future. If you let your mind browse your collection for a minute, could you give us a 2-minute rundown of how history dealt with the future in different ways? How would you describe current styles of artwork dealing with the future? What sets them apart from the rest?
Patrick: If we’re speaking about science fiction art, I think it has always been linked to the spaces explored by mankind. In history, visions of the future represent the conquest of new territories for mankind: once the Earth is fully explored, science fiction depicts the exploration of the seas, travels under the earth, voyages in the air, then journeys through the cosmos etc. More recently, new virtual spaces and parallel worlds have been imagined as new realms of human activity … Current styles of artwork have left astronomical or space art a bit behind to try and depict those new parallel realities: computer environments, time-shifted societies (steampunk), etc. But what’s really exciting to me, is that technological progress has made new types of art possible, which question our reality and try to break current boundaries as science fiction does. Therefore, works of people like Stelarc really are the new science fiction art of the day …
Nik: How important do you consider science-fiction, utopias and extraordinary voyages for people or humanity as a whole? Which function do they serve?
Patrick: I obviously think it’s very important — otherwise I should get another job. What I like about those genres (or that genre, if we see it as one, as we do here at Maison d’Ailleurs) is that they are amazing tools: science fiction can really help us understand what is happening around us, but also what people thought was happening around them 50 or a 100 years ago. Science fiction is an exploratory device that lets us work on our present and reshape things in all possible directions, and in a very free and sometimes playful and entertaining manner too. It creates frightening or enchanting perspectives that can really inspire us to go (or not go) in a given direction. How successful science fiction has been is a matter of debate probably, but for me, the main function of the genre is to question reality by allowing us to take a step back and look at it from a skewed angle.
Nik: Most visions of the future we are familiar with have also been quite top-down in nature, in the sense that they have been drafted by ‘an author’, in most cases one individual. At the same time we acknowledge that the future is always the result of a complex pattern of interaction between different actors, different visions of what the world could or ought to look like. How do you look at visions of the future not drafted by an individual but by groups of people, by stakeholders in a future (e.g. of a company, a community, a technology etc.)? Any best practice examples that particularly fascinate you in this respect?
Patrick: I must admit I don’t know many examples of groups imagining the future, except maybe Archigram, but in their case, their project might have been a bit different from creating real roadmaps for tomorrow. I think descriptions of the future are naturally created by single people or a small group of them. At the heart of the reconstruction of society is the (egocentric) presupposition that your own values should be applied to everybody and that your world should be shaped according to your beliefs. It makes a collective effort in imagining the future quite difficult.
Nik: At Pantopicon, we often look at images of the future created by science fiction writers or others as a way to help to stimulate debate about the issues they uncover. Presented as worlds built, the future becomes tangible. In view of the challenges we as a society are currently facing, which are to you some of the best debate stimulating futures our readers ought to know about?
Patrick: Ah! I wish I knew! There are many out there, from tech conferences to new media exhibitions. I’d recommend going to Transmediale (Berlin, Germany), Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria) and Utopiales (Nantes, France). These are events for arts, films and literature, but it is my favorite way to plunge into tomorrow.
Nik: Why do you think so many people in the field are architects or designers? Is it that notion of leaving one’s imprint on history through the creation of something set in stone, which endures for generations? Or is it something about the way in which our built environment influences our behaviour, reflects or even shapes society? What do you think …
Patrick: It’s because they wear black, therefore are taken seriously, like priests or judges. Well actually it’s also because traditionnaly utopias are created through the transformation of urban landscapes. The best way to change people’s behaviour is to change how they live, obvisouly. And from the industrial revolution onwards, our way of life has been heavily dependent on the renewed possession of goods. Hence architects and designers play a central role in this …
Nik: Which lines up nicely with the way Buckminster Fuller thought about changing the world: i.e. through changing the artifacts, the spaces surrounding people. One could say that some like Soleri, Fresco, Fuller, Niemeyer, … have tried to build their utopias …
Patrick: I am not sure they tried to build utopias. I think they are major figures because from the start they understood the limitations they would face and not try to impose their vision (unlike, say, Rev. Jim Jones).
Nik: Which place do they occupy in the way we see the future according to you?
Patrick: They are essential, even when they fail. And they most probably (and perhaps hopefully) do so on a mass scale. They provide blueprints for our future, that we can choose to follow or not, or partly. They are a source of inspiration.
Nik: Last but not least, how do you look at the future of thinking about and portraying the future?
Patrick: Great question! We can stop thinking about the future then we stop worrying about it. And given the world we’re in, I think we need to portray the future as, well, a magnificent future…
Nik: Thank you so much Patrick. It’s great that inspiring places and memory palaces of the future like the Maison d’Ailleurs exist. Keep up the good work!