Tomorrow’s World

Revisiting past visions of the future

Revisiting past visions of the future
Promotional poster for the original series of “Star Trek”

“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” These often quoted, but rarely attributed, wise words are from American historian Alice Morse Earle, c 1900. But in challenging times, facing the here and now offers little appeal, however philosophical you might be. We would rather look back at what seem like better bygone days, even if it’s with the help of heavily rose-tinted glasses. And when we’re done “nostalgising”, we can turn our attention to dreaming of a future in which all our ills have been spirited away, aided by the fanciful visions of writers, moviemakers, philosophers, novelists, artists, designers and architects.

When it’s not being dystopian, science-fiction often promises a time when disease and poverty are no more, and humanity’s raison d’être is aspirational. Hit TV series Star Trek, which has seen many incarnations since the original aired in 1966, is a good example. Apart from presenting yet-to-be invented gadgets like mobile phones and tablets, and far from being just about intergalactic wars and conquests, its central theme is profound: by the 24th century and beyond, humanity is no longer at war, it has embraced diversity and financial profit has ceased to be its primary driving force. Instead, technology meets all our material and other basic needs so we can divert our energy to intellectual evolution and seeking out other advanced civilisations. Perhaps this outlook, as well as the fantasy of an occasional tryst with a multi-limbed alien, is one of the reasons it still captures the imagination of millions of fans. Will we ever reach such enlightenment? Well, we are still a few thousand prime ministers away from the 2300s, so the jury is out.

An ad for Western Electric’s Picturephone that it was developing with Bell Labs for AT&T, 1968.

Some technological predictions that have come to pass have been met with less enthusiasm than others. When I was a boy in the 1970s, I remember hearing that one day you’d be able to see the person at the end of a phone call on an unimaginably small screen. It sounded magical and straight out of the science fiction I loved. I couldn’t know that by the time this phenomenon finally materialised, I’d be one of those “sorry, can we not do FaceTime” people. Once was enough, after seeing the grossly misrepresented version of my face on screen – sorry, childhood dream! Even so, it’s endearing to look back at a 1968 ad for a video calling unit prototype looks like a clunky mash-up of a landline phone, a small TV screen and a control panel with dials. To be fair, the concept was spot-on, and hardly anyone back then could have imagined that the processors in a single 21st smartphone would be infinitely more powerful than all the circuitry that powered the first moon landings.

There have been countless crystal-ball ideas we can be grateful never became reality. In 1933, Professor A M Low forecast that light would take the place of food to sustain the human body – light meals, as it were. The body’s functions would be replaced more satisfactorily by electrical means. Had this proved true, it’s unlikely ever to have caught on. I’m not convinced Low really believed we’d give up on Sunday dinner. Extra helpings of 60W bulbs anyone? No thanks, just more roast potatoes for me, please.

Professor A M Low presenting his concept for “light” nutrition. Photos: TopFoto

Gimmicks aside, one of the most reliable driving forces behind futuristic concepts is necessity, especially in architecture. With much of London devastated during WWII, the years that followed saw a big demand for forward-thinking planning and construction. Architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon came up with a utopian vision to rebuild the Cripplegate area in the City that had been razed during the Blitz. The result was the Barbican: a city within a city, home to 4,000 people, schools, a church, a library, an artificial lake, a conservatory and an entire arts centre. Construction on the now internationally recognised and acclaimed venue started in 1965 and took eleven years to build. Queen Elizabeth II, who opened it officially in 1982, declared it “one of the wonders of the modern world”. The Barbican’s brutalist architecture firmly places it in the time it was built, and while its design continues to divide opinion, it offers a compelling vision of modern city living. Maybe when flying cars become a thing, its residents will be able to alight on their balconies.

Aerial view of the Barbican, Peter Bloomfield, 1981

“Fashion’s not about looking back. It’s always about looking forward,” asserts Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. I dare to disagree with “Nuclear” Wintour because I’ve lost count of how many “retro revivals” there have been over the years (please leave flares in the ’70s where they look best), but I will concede that when some fashion designers look ahead, they bequeath us transformative concepts. Pierre Cardin, one of France’s most commercially successful designers, was one such visionary. On the surface, his Cosmos collection of 1964 looks futuristic with its bold shapes and minimalist lines. However, it’s the intent behind the construction of the clothes that matters: they were specifically cut to free the body. “I wanted to give women in the 1960s a chance to work, to sit, to take the car and drive in my dresses,” he is quoted as saying, contributing his part to the mental and physical emancipation of women. Many of his creations were unisex, and Cardin was the first named designer to mount a ready-to-wear collection, at the Printemps department store in 1959. This might seem ordinary now (think high street supremo H&M collaborating with Versace, Lagerfeld and Cavalli, to name but a few) but he had a strong sense that future fashionistas would want big labels at smaller prices, to say nothing of clothes designed for comfort and movement, wearable by any gender.

Pierre Cardin’s 1966/67 Autumn/Winter collection. Photo: TopFoto

While it’s wonderful to look back on past imaginings of the future, right now the world is crying out for visionaries of a different kind. For the first time in history, we need ideas that go far beyond cutting-edge clothes, well-organised urban living or even the eradication of disease and poverty: we need to save the planet. Otherwise there won’t be much need for flying cars or robots that can do house chores. Any takers? No pressure…

Khaled Bazzi is Art Director at Perspective

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Arts & Culture, December 2022, Life

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