The Future In All Its Sterile, Data-Crunching, Over-worked, Privatized Glory

In the past few weeks I’ve written a handful of times about the 1939 World’s Fair and the techno-uptopian vision of the future that infused the major pavilions. I was impressed by the scale of the vision. Coming at the end of one of the most difficult decades in American history, the Fair managed to exude a stunning confidence in what the fusion of corporate, modernist, and technological resources would achieve in just 20 years time — 1960.

The 1939 New York Fair was followed by another New York Fair in 1964. Four years into the projected utopia, it was clear that the hopes of the 1939 Fair were dramatically unrealized. The 1964 Fair, however, still tried its hand at forecasting the future, although this time without setting a date. The famous Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World, for example, debuted at GE’s pavilion. Pivoting our focus on Disney, EPCOT Center, which is a kind of permanent World’s Fair, debuted in 1983 and with it the Horizons pavilion which also offered a vision of the future in the grand World’s Fair style. The future was still being projected in a rather big way. If you have any doubts about the impact of Horizons, do a quick search on Google to get a glimpse of the cult following the ride engendered.

All of this to ask, are there any comparable contemporary projections of the future? Well, it’s not quite comparable in terms of the experience, but with this question in mind I came across a video produced by Microsoft which presents us with a vision of the future. Take a look:

There’s some interesting stuff in there I suppose, but it certainly fails to capture the imagination, no? A bit sterile and uninviting, and apparently the future is dominated by visual displays of data. Charts, lots of charts. Granted the video is explicitly centered on the theme of productivity and it is a bit hard to cast a vision of the future based on that theme alone.

This future is also one in which our experience is even more thoroughly mediated through screens and interfaces, and one in which no one seems to speak outside the home and office. And whereas the earlier classic appeal of technology was the promise of reducing labor, it appears that now the appeal of technology is in its ability to allow us to work from anywhere and to fill every idle minute with yet more work. Productivity indeed.

Most notably, by contrast with the future visions discussed earlier, this was also a rather privatized vision of the future. There was very little, if anything at all by way of a societal vision. It’s no longer a big vision of the future that requires a panoramic diorama of the city to fully capture, in fact, the city as city is largely absent from this future. The home and the office take center stage and when there are glimpses of the city, it is only as the immediate background of the users experience of some personal technology.

I don’t go in for utopian visions, but there is something vaguely depressing about a failure to imagine a utopia that might even be remotely evocative, to say nothing of offering a substantive challenge to the status quo.

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