When the Future Catches Up With You
Oct. 18, 2011 — I burst into a chorus of the 1980 Queen song “Flash” last Saturday night during intermission at a Japanese koto and shamisen performance. Not at full volume, of course — I have some sense of propriety — but still with a certain amount of gusto.
I might have dialed it back a bit had I realized the director of the Tenri Cultural Institute, the dignified venue where the performance was held, was standing next to me quietly seeking my attention. Alas, though, I didn’t notice this until it was already far too late. If you remember the song (“Flash! Ah-ahhh / Savior of the universe!”), you’ll understand just how mortifying the scene was for me.
It started out innocently enough. My friend and I were chatting about various examples of “retro future” – essentially, past depictions of the future, or at least of futuristic ideas. The Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s and ‘40s came up, reminding me of the campy 1980 movie Flash, a “modern” retelling of the Flash Gordon story. It turned out my friend had never seen the movie, nor had she heard the excellent theme song by Queen. Hence my untimely impromptu performance.
Light-based technologies are everywhere in the retro future. In science fiction, of course, we see a preponderance of ray guns (later, laser pistols), in the Flash Gordon serials and elsewhere. We also find holograms, photon torpedoes and, in the 1982 movie TRON, the ill-defined — but still awesome — light cycle.
Examples abound in the real world too. General Motors’ “Futurama 2” ride at the 1964/5 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, showed giant construction machines laying highways in the otherwise impenetrable jungle. Starting at about 3:53 in the video below, a narrator breathlessly describes a searing ray of light — a laser beam — cutting through the trees of the jungle, ultimately enabling delivery of goods and materials to “the innermost depths of the tropic world.”
The fun in exploring the retro future, of course, lies in seeing what previous generations imagined the future would look like. Where did they get it right, and where did they get it horribly wrong?
It’s also fun to see what they thought the future – and future technologies – would actually look like. Oftentimes, visions of the future manifested as
“Raygun Gothic,” a design aesthetic incorporating aspects of Googie, Streamline Moderne and Art Deco architectural styles that still appeals today.
In other instances, though, technologies have ended up looking ungainly and even kind of silly. Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, in their book The Meaning of Liff, describe this as “zeerust”: “the particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.” For examples, look no farther than the original Star Trek series.
This is almost bound to happen, though, when we try to anticipate such things. The technology and the needs it serves are changing so rapidly, and our visions of the future are so rooted in the present, we’re never going to get it exactly right.
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