The futuristic past


I’ve been wondering about something: Why is it that images from the past — the actual past — often feel more futuristic than our current images of an imagined future? The latter, even when they’re created with great seriousness, always have a certain kitschy quality, and the kitschiness becomes more pronounced as time passes. It’s the Tomorrowland effect. George Lucas understood that pretty well, I think; he let Star Wars revel in kitschiness rather than trying to avoid the inevitable decay into kitschiness. Fight fire with fire. Hence the film feels less dated, visually, than a lot of the more “futuristic” films about the future.

But if the future doesn’t look much like the future, the past often does. There are pictures from the past that, while you immediately recognize them as being from the past, nevertheless feel futuristic. It’s as though there’s something in your brain that wants to read them as images from the future. Here, for instance, is a picture of Enrico Fermi sitting in a control room in 1951:


Tell me you don’t experience a little cognitive dissonance while looking at that. Even the clock — drab, utilitarian, old — feels futuristic. Why?

You might think I’m stacking the deck, using a picture of an old control room. Everyone knows that old control rooms are just plain cooler than new control rooms. But I don’t think it’s just control rooms. Here’s a photo of a Fort Worth gas station celebrating its grand opening in 1964. Everything about it, not least the prices, screams “Fort Worth 1964.” (In 1964, I was five years old and I lived very near Fort Worth; it’s entirely possible I visited that gas station.) And yet there’s also an odd air of the future about it. If you needed to fill up your tank in 2064, wouldn’t this be the place you’d pull into:

gas station

If Lucas went the kitsch route from the start, Jean Luc Godard, in his 1965 movie Alphaville, took the opposite, and I think more interesting, route. He didn’t use futuristic sets at all. He just went out and filmed a science fiction movie in the Paris of the (then) present. He knew, I suspect, that by the time the film was released, the present would already be the past and hence would already have started to take on a futuristic patina — a patina that would actually grow stronger as time passed. And it worked:


Surely, that’s an image from the future.

I draw no conclusions from any of this. I’m just making an observation: the future looks more like the past than the future.

This video makes the same point, kind of. Anyway, I like the song.

“No one has lived in the past and no one will live in the future.” That is the absolute truth.

 Movie stills from Alphaville; Fermi photo from Chuckman; gas station photo from Craig Howell; fan video for song “Yellow Wife No. 5” from the Airport 5 album Life Starts Here.

6 thoughts on “The futuristic past

  1. Aristotle Pagaltzis

    All of these examples look like dated ideations of the future to me – like how the future was once imagined – retrofuturism, in short, rather than actual futurism. (Except for the gas station, which to me looks just plain dated.)

    When I try to think of what might look futuristic to me, I suspect that it is defined by a touch of the ’90s, and may well come to be more and more dominated by that ambiance.

    So one hypothesis for what’s going on would be that a) what looks futuristic to oneself is the æsthetic that one absorbed during one’s adolescence as recognisably contemporary but new, expensive, flashy, and b) you are, on that basis, simply dating yourself here.

    If that should happen to be so, then what conclusions can be drawn is also quite evident, unlike how it seemed to you.


    @Aristotle Pagaltzis

    “If that should happen to be so, then what conclusions can be drawn is also quite evident, unlike how it seemed to you.”

    Ah shucks, A, can’t ya’ please spell it out for us?

  3. Nick Post author

    “what looks futuristic to oneself is the æsthetic that one absorbed during one’s adolescence as recognisably contemporary but new, expensive, flashy”

    So, for me, I guess that would mean one of those mirrored disco balls, or maybe the Knots Landing set?

    Uh, no. Not yet, anyway.

    By the way, why would they be “dated ideations” rather than just dated “dated ideas”?

  4. Aristotle Pagaltzis

    Then maybe the only fact that remains to note after all speculation has washed away is that this futuristic sense of the past is not universal, at least not in its particulars.

    (As for the question, because I don’t mean the specific content of the ideas so much as the kinds of things one tends to come up with ideas for. No matter how your control room concepts look, if you are making control rooms a prominent subject, that very fact is an artefact of your time.)

  5. Dan Hook

    Robin Hanson talks quite a bit about construal level theory, that is that certain concepts are psychologically “far” and others are “near”, and near and far concepts carry with them different modes of thinking. The past and future are both far. In far mode thought, we tend to filter out details. At least two of those images, the control room and the hallway have lots of smooth surfaces lacking in detail.

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