Yesterday's tomorrows

Books Matthew Price sifts through a survey of wild imaginings, polemical predictions, and thousand-page studies of the world to come. The future may last a long time, but futurism never really changes.

Thanks to capitalism, "the future" came to embody a formula that went something like this: rational planning + streamlined efficiency + consumer demand = endless profits and prosperity.
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Matthew Price sifts through a survey of wild imaginings, polemical predictions, and thousand-page studies of the world to come. The future may last a long time, but futurism never really changes. Future: A Recent History Lawrence R Samuel University of Texas Press Dh170 "The future," Virginia Woolf once mused, "is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think." The future is, by definition, unknowable - but the temptation to illuminate that darkness has proved irresistible to scientists, pundits, writers and visionaries of every ideological persuasion. In the West, the future has loomed as a kind of civilisational organising principle, though there has been much debate about what, exactly, we should be organising for.

The future has been variously depicted as a paradise - Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow -  and a nightmare - the 1984 of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, though these are two sides of the same coin. Without the principles of the Enlightenment, some notion of historical progress, and the idea of rational liberalism, the "future" as we know it could not exists: the negative and positive visions of tomorrow spring from this same vexed source. (Huxley's dystopia, after all, can be seen as a form of progress gone mad - the fear of an excess of technological advancement at the expense of humanity.) If science and technology had dethroned God as the ultimate arbiters of man's fate, the future was still an uncertain place; if history indeed was moving toward some end, the terminus remained just out of view. This very uncertainty has proved an endlessly provocative starting point for wild imaginings, polemical predictions, and thousand-page studies, encompassing everything from the sci-fi fantasies of HG Wells to the hard-edged scenario planning of the RAND corporation.

In his new survey, Future: A Recent History, the consultant and author Lawrence Samuel breezes through a highlight reel of the "futures" of the past 100 years. Even if he doesn't always agree with particular methodologies of prediction, Samuel is a true believer in the promise of futurism, whose tenets, at least in his pages, are rarely subject to rigorous analysis. In this regard, Future might be best seen as yet another example of the breathless discourse it purports to be chronicling, an attempt to marshal the anecdotal evidence of thousands of futures past to refine our diagnosis of the future of now. It is yet another version of the endless pseudo-refinement that has marked the evolution of futurism from its roots in superstition and prophecy into something aspiring to the status of a science, with each generation gazing back dismissively at the foolish predictions of those who came before and asserting the "new and improved" methods they've devised to finally get it right.

Henry Ford said history is more or less bunk; the same could be said about much of futurism. Samuel's account of its rise in the past century is strictly anecdotal, tinged with the presumption and boosterism that have been the unfortunate hallmarks of futurist theorising. Many of the "experts" Samuel quotes offer breathtakingly vapid accounts of the wonders to come, and self-important defences of their own hi-tech soothsaying: Consider this gem from World Future Society president Edward Cornish, who in 1977 observed that "if anything is important, it is the future".

Samuel argues that full-blown futurism is a product of the 20th century, one that saw its purest expression in American culture, perhaps because, as he writes, "the idea of the future is so American-centric" - a preposterously exceptionalist claim of the sort held only by Americans. Samuel is equivocal and fuzzy about the deeper roots of futurism, which he traces in a few paragraphs, skipping merrily from Old Testament prophecy to to HG Wells's turn-of-the-century utopian romances. Aside from a brief mention of the I-Ching, Samuel has little interest in how the future was imagined outside the West, which undercuts any attempt at understanding how, precisely, western culture came to its own relentlessly positivist approach to the subject.

Samuel's account of the rhetoric of futurism is maddeningly vague: the best he can offer is that "the future is not a fixed idea but a highly variable one that reflects the values of the those who are imagining it." But this really tells us nothing. Still, from his copious gathering of quotations, it is possible to construct a reading of the genre. Samuel argues that "futurism as an authentic field came into its own" in the two decades between the First and Second World Wars. Given his own background as a consultant - he is the founder of Culture Planning LLC, which gives advice to Fortune 500 companies - Samuel places a heavy emphasis on the way business leaders have thought about the future. (He has almost nothing to say about the way radical utopians on the left or right grappled with the world of tomorrow, nor the often tragic consequences of their certainty about it.) From the Great Depression through the Second World War and the economic uncertainty of the 1970s, Samuel's accounts of each subsequent future have much the same tone as a campaign speech or a corporate presentation: in his telling, if inadvertently, the future comes to seem like a combination of business opportunities and marketing schemes. The future, it turns out, is nothing more than the greatest and most fundamental pitch of every ad copywriter, salesman and candidate: having determined that rationality can guide our futures, we need only to select the right consumer goods, or vote the right party - and the future is "ours".

Samuel's survey is littered with forgotten futurists - for the literature of the genre is nothing if not ephemeral - and it is in their tone and rhetoric, not the content of their now-useless predictions - that we may discover something of the essence of the future as Americans, at least, envisioned it. One of these long-gone prognosticators, Charles Criswell - who penned a column prosaically called "Criswell Predicts" - described the tools of his trade like so: "People aren't interested in hearing about the future unless it's more exciting than the present. You've got to jazz it up a little." During the interwar years, the hard sell was on. Capitalism, business leaders believed, was only suffering a temporary spasm; the best was yet to come. Americans were promised a plethora of gadgets to ease the hard times with visions of infinite plenitude around the corner, from the coming magic of "radio-television" to driverless cars in cities reaching to the sky.

And so "the future" came to embody a formula that went like this: rational planning + streamlined efficiency + pent-up consumer demand = endless profits and perpetual prosperity. The future was tamed and domesticated, its details carefully sculpted by advertisers and the media into a kind of theme park of optimism - best seen at the landmark World's Fair of 1939, which Samuel dubs "an unequivocal future-fest", complete with a corny "Town of Tomorrow", not to mention the "Rocketport of the Future", the "Drugstore of the Future" and, of course, the "Soda Fountain of the Future". The centrepiece of the fair, "Futurama", was, perhaps not surprisingly, part of a General Motors exhibit. We have seen the future, and it will be paved.

What Samuel cannot account for, however, is how, exactly, the future is calibrated to the present - why visions of the world to come oscillate between overwrought optimism and dire alarmism. Samuel - as befits his perspective as a corporate consultant - focuses on the sunny side of the street: he's alarmed by the pessimism of the 1970s and visibly relieved when "America's confidence" is "restored under President Reagan's red-white-and-blue leadership."

But the abundant imaginings of gee-whiz business-futurism have been more than counterbalanced by the parade of horrors elsewhere predicted: environmental devastation, nuclear war, peak oil or global overpopulation and worldwide famine. That none of these apocalyptic augurings have come to pass is a point of pride among the "bright future" set, but there's no reason why present conditions should lead us to infer one extreme rather than the other.

For Samuel, futurism took a wrong turn in the 1950s and 1960s, when economists, psychiatrists and sociologists succumbed to the mania for prediction. This was the era when the future went into the think tank, and futurism became "forecasting". Abstruse mathematical models replaced the fantastic landscapes of the World's Fair. The future was more and more rendered in terms of negative fulfilment - futurists became preoccupied with "decreasing the probability of catastrophe". "We have begun to assemble statistical time-series both to plot trend-lines and extrapolate likely developments," the sociologist Daniel Bell said in the late Sixties, "and begun to construct 'models' or likely combinations of trends and developments in order to uncover the connections and causal relations between variables."

To post-war corporations - if less so for consumers - such wizardry was naturally enticing. Who wouldn't want a better way to predict the behaviour of John Q Public? The implications of new and improved futurism were clear to Fortune magazine, which gushed in 1967: "Suddenly 'the future' is a subject that we can, with some condence, know something about - a province no less worth exploring than, say, the past."

Yet this hubristic vision was as risibly narrow as the Futuramas promised by the business classes. Like the historical determinism of Marxian theorists, these predictioneers described a future with laws and axioms that could be mapped and analysed with apparent precision - so long as enough data was sifted and the models for decoding it were sufficiently complex. To Samuel, of course, this "left-brain thinking" stripped the future of its awe - you can't sell a mathematical model or excite consumers with the "decreased probability of catastrophe". Futurism, he predicts, needs to return to its roots as "an art form". What he does not do, however, is explain why - or how - futurism should or could resemble an art of any kind.

In fact, the grand lesson to be drawn from the 20th century and its myriad futures - each a little less exciting, a little less radical, than the one imagined a few years earlier - is that while the future may change, futurism, whether science or voodoo, never really does. In the vanished visions of futures past - the dreams and hopes never realised and now discarded - we see little more than a menagerie of extinct beasts, an array of alternative presents that tells us nothing about who we are but hints, tantalisingly, at what we once wished to be.

Matthew Price, a regular contributor to The Review, last wrote on Richard Overy's The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars.