In troubled times the future gets scarier. Understandably, our visions for the rest of this century have recently turned extra-dystopian, having abandoned any attempt to cheer us up with even the faintest flicker of light at the end of the long, long, Covid tunnel. The precedent for this advanced doom-mongery was largely established by George Orwell who, as every pub quizzer knows, wrote 1984 in 1948 in a Britain still littered with smoking piles of rubble. Likewise, Huxley, his equally morose predecessor, envisioned his Brave New World in 1931, at the start of the Great Depression. Apparently though, they were both great fun at parties.
This helps explain why today’s dark projections paint us a picture of climate ravaged city scapes animated by autonomous bubble cars, a Chinese style social credit system, insect rich diets, fleets of robots sanitising the streets, and police surveillance drones whirring overhead.
I can’t wait.
Even our most optimistic visionaries overlooked our messy and unpredictable human nature. With startling accuracy Arthur C Clarke foresaw the internet and the world of social media with his prediction of instant and global communication. But clearly he had no bloody idea whatsoever how divisive and angry Twitter and Facebook would make us. Likewise, Asimov’s 1964 prognostications were absolutely spot on when it comes to video communication, but he couldn’t resist envisioning a future where ordinary people lived in subterranean, suburban homes. Yes folks, Isaac wanted to bury us.
The last time things felt this dismal was just after the second world war. Even though we were almost as broke as we are today, we attempted to build a bold vision for the non-war bit of what was left of the twentieth century. We called it The Festival of Britain, but in reality it was a well meaning but disjointed celebration of atomic research, high rise living and modernist ceramics, alongside a tacky funfair. Schoolchildren flocked to the helter-skelter but largely ignored Skylon and the other grand futuristic indulgences probably because they served no fathomable purpose whatsoever. Even fifties’ kids weren’t stupid.
Architects are the worst. (How to alienate your readership in four words) They love a grand scheme, especially if it sweeps away messy homes and replaces them with something big and ‘iconic’. Every conceptual city masterplan has at its centre a football pitch of a piazza wrapped around a museum of some description. These are visions from professionals that find us ordinary folk a bit too messy for our own good. They wish us to be benign consumers to be managed and educated, to be nudged away from fast food joints and pubs, and towards something more arts related. They also have a peculiar fetish for museums, which speaks volumes in itself. Think about it: the display of inanimate objects in a logical, categorised order, labelled and sorted for posterity. Museums are our tidying, managing mentality given religious significance. There are no kebab shops here.
Now imagine yourself flicking through a holiday brochure (remember those?) in search of your dream vacation. If, as you looked more closely at the couple by the swimming pool bar supping on enormous pineapples, you suddenly recognised your own bloated belly and multiple chins it would put you off holidays for life. Visions of the future rarely include their author. Our own mundanity would puncture the fantasy irreparably. (Btw, is Elon Musk still moving to Mars?)
The truth is, our visions of the future don’t fit us. They are designed for a public that simply doesn’t exist, not for the greedy, narcissistic, competitive, voyeuristic, neurotic, contrarian, argumentative, messy people we really are. Civic visions are so anaemic, so 1951. They stick to a narrative that diminishes humanity in an attempt to iron out all our messy bits. They want us to be compliant consumers, or worse, poets on UBI, frequenting galleries and jotting down notes.
Surely I’m not alone in thinking the most exciting towns and cities are those that grew organically? Tangled streets bursting with shops and houses and offices concertinaed into inconceivably awkward spaces are much more engaging than the planned ones. These are the places that beg to be explored by visitors, and lived in and loved by locals. One of the reasons shopping centres will never feel authentic is precisely because they are so well thought out, designed, finished and managed.
When eventually the roaring twenties do kick in (and they will) I want our high streets to be an ever-churning parade of messy independents and improbable pop-ups. Our autonomous cabs may well have a cockney robo-voice but they’ll be sharing the road with lots of non-autonomous, privately owned electric cars and internal combustion engined vehicles running on e-fuel. And if I live long enough to visit my local vertical farm I expect it to have a rustic greengrocers underneath, serving exceptional freshly brewed coffee, not a predictive vending bot. It’s the messy bit that will make it human.
So sleep soundly in the knowledge that the future is sure to be a lot messier than these brittle, brutal techno-visions they throw at us. And you can bet your underpants it won’t resemble anything that comes from government diktat or over qualified think-tank.
After all, the high rise living vision left us with little more than lofty slums. The promise of virtually free atomic power, well you know where that got us. I for one, resent and reject this bug eating, drone monitoring, autonomy robbing, robotically sanitised future. Why? Because ultimately, its designers designed it for others.