Whither the Future?

“There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times.”

— William Butler Yeats

With those evocative words Yeats began his essay on William Blake. Blake was, in Yeats’ estimation, one of these men who loved the future like a mistress. If he were thinking of nations rather than individuals, Yeats’ might have spoken those same words  of American culture. To say that throughout their history Americans have been more interested  in looking forward to the future rather than backwards at the past is a generalization, but it is rather safe one to make.

One stunning and not too distant instance of this future orientation was on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I’ve been reading about the fair in both David Nye’s Electrifying America and his later American Technological Sublime. The 1939 Fair is interesting on a number of levels, but I’m especially taken by the manner in which the Fair synthesized perhaps the most remarkable generation or so of technological development with a (corporate) modernist aesthetic to produce an evocative and cohesive utopian vision of the future. The future, or The World of Tomorrow, was the theme of just about every major exhibit at the Fair, and for the first time the most extravagant and well-conceived exhibits were not the national exhibits, but the corporate ones (General Electric, General Motors, AT&T, Chrysler, to name a few). Three major exhibits featured intricate scale model representations of the future city complete with dramatic narration, symphonic music, and 1000 voice choirs making the whole a “quasi-religious experience of escape into an ideal future.”

During the planning that had led up to the Fair, architect and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford had called for the Fair to be a concrete anticipation of “the future of the whole civilization.” This heady, vaguely spiritualized optimism and expectation for the world of tomorrow is all the more remarkable when we consider that it was articulated and experienced in the latter years of the Great Depression. This may not be all that surprising if we imagine that the hardship of the Depression made people all the more hungry for an escapist model of the future. However, we might also consider the possibility that the Depression could just as easily have quelled all optimism and hope for the future after the very long decade.

And this is our segue to the present. It appears that the cultural mood has shifted. Our collective eyes seemed to be fixed not on the future, but on the past. One indicator of this shift is the resurgence of nostalgia in popular culture that we have noted here before. The nostalgic turn, however, did not just emerge with Mad Men (and now its imitations) and Instagram’s faux-vintage photo apps. It was noted by scholars in the 1990’s and is complicit with the postmodern repurposing of the past as far back as the 1970s. Take all of these together and over the last generation something has been afoot. And if it might be described as a gradual reorientation of American society’s collective gaze toward past rather than the future, then it amounts a startling transformation of immense cultural consequence.

All of this had been flitting about my head for the past several weeks when I came across a piece by Peter Thiel titled “The End of the Future”. Therein, Thiel argues suggestively that, despite appearances to the contrary, scientific and technological development has stagnated over the last couple of decades (with the not insignificant exception of information processing) and our current economic crisis is, in part, a reflection of this stagnation. Consider the following paragraph:

When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003 … Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.

Thiel also cites this 1967 passage from Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s The American Challenge,

In 30 years America will be a post-industrial society. . . . There will be only four work days a week of seven hours per day. The year will be comprised of 39 work weeks and 13 weeks of vacation. With weekends and holidays this makes 147 work days a year and 218 free days a year. All this within a single generation.

It’s not unusual, of course, for predictions of this sort to dissolve in the more turbulent waters of reality, but it’s not just that the prediction turned out to be mistaken, it’s that the thought of making any kind of similar prediction today would appear absurd, silly, or infantile.

I’m not necessarily endorsing Thiel’s argument, in fact, I’m not even sure Thiel is endorsing his argument, it felt more like a speculative piece than an argument. But it does add to the growing number of data points that together suggest Americans may be losing their confidence in the future. It would be ill advised to pin this on any one cause, but I especially want to resist pinning this on the economic downturn itself. Remember the exuberance of the 1939 World’s Fair came after ten years of the Great Depression and while the light at the end of the tunnel was not quite visible.

So any thoughts? What’s your take on the future? Any other relevant cultural indicators you can think of?


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