Sunday, February 28, 2016

"The Future" as a sales pitch

No one can know the future. But it turns out we can invent a place called "The Future" and invite people to inhabit it.

In order to inhabit "The Future"--which is really just an enactment of our ideas about the future--you need the right accessories. For starters you'll need the basics: the latest iPhone with the latest social networking app, a fully electric car (if you can afford it), and a FitBit watch. To that you can add your own personal drone, personal robot, and a farm cube for growing your own lettuce indoors.

In fact, before the pageants we call trade shows (such as the Consumer Electronics Show, coverage of which is linked above), we had world fairs that allowed us to "see the future." Perhaps the most important thing to note about such events is that they began by focusing mostly on scientific and technical progress and its resulting consumer products. At these events our future political and economic system apparently remains unchanged. This is, in part, because political and economic reform cannot be packaged and sold like consumer products.

Of course, I could fill up this entire piece just listing all the other futuristic devices and even places that are available to us today and not scratch the surface. We are a society that venerates progress and that always has its eyes on the future. We think of ourselves as innovative and regard innovation as almost invariably good.

My interest in "The Future" as a sales pitch comes from a series of conversations with a good friend, James Armstrong, who is currently teaching a course in science fiction film. One of the films he's showing is 2001: A Space Odyssey. He pointed out that before the film premiered, Look magazine was circulating a video to advertisers seeking commitments for an issue that would appear in conjunction with the film's release. It turns out that the issue would be about selling "The Future" to the public.

Has "The Future" always been a commodity available for sale? I don't think so. I think it is a product of the fossil fuel age which freed so many people from farm labor and made them available for other pursuits such as thinking up new products and new ways of doing things. Many of those new ways took advantage of the cheap and copious energy increasingly available from fossil fuels. In other words, many of those things were self-powered machines running on steam or later electricity.

The whole of society had to be reoriented to the constant change which new products and new approaches represented. Those who dragged their feet were "old-fashioned" or opponents of progress. The move from a society steeped in tradition to one which routinely overthrew tradition had to discover a location other than the past for people to find firm cultural footing. That place was "The Future."

And, that future had to be designed. Streamline Moderne architecture comes out of industrial design. Automobiles, trains and many consumer products were streamlined in their design in an attempt to make them look modern and futuristic. This movement in design was deeply committed to embedding the idea of scientific and technical progress in objects which people used and saw daily.

Later the International Style was a design movement which gave us the sleek glass and steel box building. These buildings are the backdrop for an unusual French science fiction film called Alphaville. The film never actually leaves Earth, but sends its protagonist across a long bridge to Alphaville, a city on another planet that is populated by humans and looks like an International Style architectural museum. In Alphaville the future is utterly rational and menacingly so. In fact, its rationality threatens to destroy it and the people of Earth as well, something the film's protagonist tries to prevent.

This dark tint to modernism is a frequent theme in literature and film. But in the marketing of products and services any hint of darkness is almost always absent for obvious reasons. Who wants to live in a future that will turn out badly?

Perhaps the most important thing about "The Future" as a sales pitch is that we don't have to wait to live there. We can live there now--right now--if only we purchase the right accessories.

Those who don't acquire them are "soooo yesterday." Ergo, living in "The Future" actually requires that there be a living past to compare, namely all those people who are not early adopters.

Now, I bring up the term "early adopters" because it was made popular by Everett Rogers' tome on social change called Diffusion of Innovations. This book popularized what is called the "S-curve" which graphically depicts how innovations spread through culture over time. My guess is that the S-curve was a lot flatter and longer along the time axis in, say, the Middle Ages. People then rarely imagined that they should be in the vanguard. Rather, it was their connection to cultural tradition that defined them. There was change; but it was far more leisurely.

Today, we have something right out of Dr. Seuss's story, The Sneetches. You'll recall that Sneetches are bird-like characters who happen to walk upright. Some have stars on their protruding bellies, marking them as upper caste.

A huckster visiting the land of the Sneetches realizes he can make money by installing a "star-on machine" to elevate the position of the lower-caste Sneetches. When the star-belly Sneetches realize what is happening, they quickly assent to use the huckster's "star-off machine" to again distinguish themselves from these lower-caste upstarts. As you might expect, the lower-caste Sneetches make their way to the star-off machine quite quickly, and the huckster rakes in the money as the cycling of Sneetches between machines becomes constant.

"The Future" is styled as an elitist location for a certain priesthood of early adopters who can afford it--the equivalent of star-belly Sneetches. Far from being a product of the inevitable progress of humankind, "The Future" is envisioned, planned, promoted, manufactured and sold--which is why successive versions of "The Future" eventually become dated. A recent trip to Seattle and a visit to the Space Needle reminded me of this. Not surprisingly, the Space Needle was built for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair.

It is crucial to understand that in our modern global culture, the contest for hearts and minds is not over tradition versus change. It is between competing versions of "The Future." We have several to choose from: the business-as-usual technological future which includes burning a lot more fossil fuel; the green technology future which involves burning a lot LESS fossil fuel; the transformation of modern industrial culture into a more localized, craft and agricultural existence (something like William Morris' utopian novel News from Nowhere); and the dystopian breakdown of modern society and its reversion to a more primitive state.

The interesting thing about all these futures--and the first two are by far the most popular--is that none of them is actually meant to be a return to a traditional past. Each must compete for terrain in the land of "The Future." In that regard it's easy to see why options three and four are not gaining much traction.

To deal with the enormous environmental, social and economic problems we face, I'm inclined to suggest that we come back and live in the present. In the present we can appreciate our traditions without being slaves to them, and we can evaluate possible futures without deciding ahead of time to live in a mere enactment of a possible future that locks us into a predetermined destination--one that may not turn out to be the destination we really want, nor one that will necessarily solve the problems we face.

We need a serious discussion about our common human future. But in order to do that, we will have to dispense with the "sales pitch" versions, at least temporarily, and have an intellectually honest discussion. And, that seems to be the hardest thing of all to do these days.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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