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Optimistic Futurism By Richard Seymour So what the hell happened to the future? Everything was
Optimistic Futurism By Richard Seymour So what the hell happened to the future? Everything was

Optimistic

Futurism

By Richard Seymour

So what the hell happened to the future?

By Richard Seymour So what the hell happened to the future? Everything was going just fine

Everything was going just fine in the early1950s, though much of Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union was still flattened under a

shroud of ash and broken bricks. Even as the icy grip of the Cold War tightened, those of us that were growing up then, found time to look with thrall and optimism into the future. Men went to the moon and back, Teflon and liquid crystals and lasers and Velcro changed our lives (as had nylon and cellulose before them) and although life wasn’t unremitting fun, we could all sense a faint, underpinning mantra: gradually, things were getting better.

And then suddenly it stopped.

I’ve been trying to isolate the moment when

it stopped for ages. Some say it was Jack

Kennedy’s assassination. Others claim it wasn’t a single moment at all, but a gradual decent into collective depression after the Summer of Love didn’t make good on it’s THC-fuelled dreams. But as far as the UK is concerned, I’m absolutely sure I can trace it back to a specific moment:

January 1st 1974.

The ‘3 day week’ as it came to be known, a virtual halving of industrial output, brought on by an energy crisis which arose from industrial action over coal-mining in the UK, showed us Brits that we could no longer be considered world-class at all. We’d finally lost the ability to build big, exciting aeroplanes, Blue Streak, our own, much-vaunted, independant nuclear delivery missile was a dead duck, our railways were screwed and we couldn’t run a bath.

We suddenly realised we were crap.

A couple of years before that, people had

run screaming from the initial screenings of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ claiming that such a barbaric vision of a future dystopia couldn’t possibly happen. Now the news slowly began to reveal that Little Alex’s ultraviolence was a hideous creeping reality.

Then came several global depressions, the end of the Space Age, shrinking ozone layers, aeroplanes into buildings, Global Warming and, bingo, here we are. Comprehensively screwed and wondering what we’re doing here.

If you look around the now, poking around in popular culture, you’ll usually find a doomy view of the future promulgated - from Japan’s manga and anime to your regular, everyday news reviews, nihilistic, post-apocalyptic visions prevail.

We just don’t seem to be able to shake off this maudlin streak in Europe. The French, though, are an exception. And it comes from an unexpected quarter.

France has a highly-developed adult cartoon culture, fuelled for a good thirty years by the brilliant foresight of the likes of Bilal and Moebius (Jean Giraud), both graphic novelists from the crucible of modern social imagery: Metal Hurlant. And it is in this unlikely medium that France’s ‘optimistic futurism’ is at it’s most obvious. Certainly, it has it’s dark moments but hidden within the pages of your average French cartoon you’ll find a core of ebullient humanism trying to get out.

It’s something we all need to see.

Designers cannot be, by definition, pessimists. It just doesn’t go with the job. We’re supposed to be defining the future, aren’t we?

Populating it with the kit and the buildings and the décor that everyone else is going to move in to when they get there. If we can’t see the world as a better place to live in, then what chance does anyone else have?

It’s exciting listening to genuine design optimists, like Apple’s Jonathan Ive, talk about how things are going to get progressively better. Easier. Faster. Simpler. Yummier. Or Gordon Murray, waxing lyrical about how he’s left McLaren to ‘sort out city mobility’. Or designer-come-wizard Tom Heatherwick,

giggling like a schoolboy because he’s turned

a bridge in Docklands into a living, breathing piece of mechanical ballet in front of yet another haughty Richard Rodgers glasshouse.

It’s exciting because I believe them.

And it’s exciting because these people are embracing big, complicated issues which affect all of us, not just running away into a corner to design yet another salt and pepper pot for an Italian luxury goods company.

And it’s exciting because, in this post- convergent world, we really can fix a lot of the stuff that didn’t serve us well before. We can make sure that impossible-to-programme crap like VCRs don’t happen again. We can connect ourselves to virtually anyone around the planet, for any number of reasons and for a fraction of the price. We can fix shopping for disabled people. We could even convert a bus system into a book-your-seat personal limo service.

We can do almost anything we can imagine now, if we put our minds to it. Which puts us

squarely in the same position as our forebears were in the early 16th century, with a new age of technology and capability stretching out

in front of us, as far as the eye can see, if we

only choose to.

So now it’s no longer down to what we can do

– it’s about what we should do. And that takes

more than just imagination, it takes wisdom. For instance, distributing power generation to the point of use, such as in the infrastructures imagined in the Hydrogen economy, could utterly revolutionise the way we live.

It doesn’t have to be done all at once. We

can do it a bit at a time and still win. Even apparently tiny changes can still make a phenomenal difference. In the US three years ago, five large schools got together to see what impact that tiny folding, aluminium kids scooter had made to the school run. They calculated the fuel saving over a year, where Mom wasn’t using the SUV to take junior to

made to the school run. They calculated the fuel saving over a year, where Mom wasn’t
Optimistic Furturism (cont) school, but walking with him scooting his little steed instead. They made

Optimistic Furturism (cont)

school, but walking with him scooting his little steed instead. They made a phenomenal discovery. Over only five schools, the fuel saving was an amazing 830,000 gallons of gasoline, almost enough to drive a compact European car to the Sun!

There’s nothing on the planet that can’t be made just that bit better (rather than just that bit different). But before you do it, you need to have an idea where you want all this to go eventually, a vision of the future, with a set of stepping stones to let you get from the now into the future in an effective and efficient way. Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, an exquisitely- illustrated comic strip did this beautifully in the 50s and 60s, portraying a virtually utopian future with recognisable ‘emotional signposts’ along the way. The planet-hopping shuttle rocket in this picture is surrounded by battered leather suitcases with ‘Mars’ stickers on them. That’s not because the illustrator/futurist Frank Hampson lacked the vision to imagine the luggage of the future, it was just his little way of saying: ‘It’ll be everything you dreamed of, but with all your favourite, familiar stuff still there’.

And that’s what we should be doing: leading the way by visualising and articulating achievable futures that get us out of this hole.

I’m pretty sure Apple don’t call themselves optimistic futurists, but that’s exactly what they are. My favourite Steve Jobs one-liner is: ‘It’s not the consumers job to know about the future, that’s my job.’ And he’s absolutely right.

Jurassic corporations need to learn from the mammals. The secret of the ‘next big thing’ isn’t lurking inside the ‘consumers’ head, waiting to be liberated by some well- paid focus group. It’s inside the heads of the dreamers, the futurists, the Utopians.

You and me.

And sometimes we get despondent and knocked-back by the beancounters who tell us we’re wrong and that the ‘consumer’ is

always right. Or by the supply chain who say

it can’t be done. Or by the MD who can’t

see further than his own Excel spreadsheet.

But the difference is that we’re the ones with the imagination to see beyond what things are, which is why we applied for art college in the first place, rather than accountancy or law.

If I wake up depressed tomorrow and design

a really bad poster for hair gel, who’s going

to give a damn? (other than the client). If I get

up and design a really bad train, though, I’m going to visit a trillion devils on thousands of people for years to come.

History tells us that before great business can happen, it first has to be a Mission. And a Mission starts with a Dream.

As designers, we potentially hold enormous power. And with it comes responsibility.

hold enormous power. And with it comes responsibility. Wield it imaginatively and wisely. And optimistically. Or

Wield it imaginatively and wisely.

And optimistically.

Or fuck off and do something less dangerous.

There’s nothing on the planet that can’t be made just that bit better (rather than just that bit different).

on the planet that can’t be made just that bit better (rather than just that bit

The shape of things to come

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