Is ‘The Future’ A Thing Of The Past?


Screw the hoverboards. Today is the end of futuregazing.

Let me put that into context. I’m not saying people will never again imagine what the world of the future will look like. But October 21, 2015 — the day Marty McFly arrives in “the future” — may mark the end of a particular era in culture and imagination.

To be specific, it’s the end of people (particularly kids) taking a cue from popular culture to look forward to a specific date and try to deal with the cognitive dissonance of knowing they’ll one day live in that time, but finding it almost incomprehensible that such a futuristic-seeming date could ever become the present.

I am just about old enough to remember people in 1984 discussing the experience of actually living in the year in which George Orwell’s novel was set, but it was the children of that time who really experienced the golden era of cultural futuregazing.

It was perhaps a combination of the new millennium seeming inherently futuristic and the emergence of technology over the past fifteen years bringing everything from a man on the moon to handheld electronic games. But whatever the cause, it was truly a time when movies and other entertainment had us looking at the calendar and picturing our lives in the future.

And now it’s happened.

Skynet didn’t become self-aware in 1997. We really did party like it was 1999, though thankfully the Moon didn’t get sent out of orbit. The 21st century came and while Judge Dredd never showed up, many of us did follow Jarvis Cocker’s advice to “all meet up in the year 2000” and discover that it really was strange when we were all fully grown. We made it to 2001 and the only thing more shocking to kids of the 80s than us not living in space was that Ric Flair was still walking to the ring to Also Sprach Zarathustra.

But Back To The Future Part II was always the end-date. The simplicity of switching the setting from 30 years into the past to 30 years into the future turned out to be timeless because as each year passed, we not only had to get to grips with the idea that one day we would be living in “the future” but we also had to somehow comprehend that one day 1985 would be further in the past than 1955 had been when Marty made his first trip through time.

From now on, it’s slim pickings. Sure, there’re a few dates coming up from once-futuristic media. The movie of The Running Man is in 2017, with the book in 2025, while Soylent Green is set in 2022. But not only are these less iconic dates (unlike that literally iconic Delorean dashboard), they are dystopias. Nobody ever expects to live in the culture they describe, while the Hill Valley of 2015 had enough similarities to the world of the 1980s to be plausible. Irritatingly clich├ęd as “where’s my hoverboard?” memes have become, we really did expect many of the things in the movie to become reality and, as numerous articles today have made clear, many of them have.

As for iconic dates in the future, we’re now mainly talking not just a world we never expect to see, but an era long after anyone on the planet to day will be alive. As much as we may enjoy songs of the year 2525 or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, we’re never going to see those dates. And while the arguments over when Star Trek is set are the stuff of online nerd legend, the sad fact is that many of us will not be around to see if first contact really is made in 2063.

Of course, this may all be a generational thing, but it seems the movies and books really don’t exist to serve as signposts for today’s children to imagine their lives being dramatically different in, say, 15 to 30 years time. That’s partly because writers can no longer peg their stories on the glamour of a new millennium, but I believe it’s largely because of the actual experiences of the past few decades.

It’s not to say we haven’t seen dramatic change, particularly in technology: quite the opposite in fact. Since the early 80s we’ve gone from the home computer being a novelty and most people’s understanding on connected devices going no further than Tic Tac Toe being the way to stop global thermonuclear war, to a point where the majority of people in developed nations have a device in their pocket that can play videos and their entire music collection, perform almost any function imaginable, access a large proportion of the world’s knowledge and information, and instantly communicate with billions of people. With streaming and DVRs, we’re not far away from a generation of children with no understanding of the concept of a television channel, let alone the ridiculous idea that at one time you could only telephone somebody if you knew their physical location.

What’s happened, however, is that this change has come about at a gradual pace. We’ve learned over the past few decades that however technology changes, it will nearly always feel normal, and that many aspects of life and the human experience will remain the same. Even if somebody were to now create an iconic movie set in 2045, we’ve experienced enough reality to know that come that date, most people will still be working 9-5 jobs no matter how many robots we build, the rules of major sports will largely be the same, and frankly there’s no realistic prospect that we’ll be living on the Moon, Mars or a spaceship.

Maybe it’s just that reaching Marty McFly’s future is a reminder that we’re all much closer to old age and death than our childhoods. But even if October 21, 2015 is the end of the future we once dreamt of, it’s not a bad thing. The Hill Valley of the future got as much right as it got wrong, and when you take the time to assess it, the real world of 2015 is pretty darned amazing.

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