Future Shock! – How popular culture views the future

The future is coming, or so they say. And as it approaches us head-on, we can do little to avoid collision with its impending certainty. I for one am looking forward to the invention of hoverboards in 2015, but am still nervous every time I turn on my computer of the day when robots rule the earth.

There are various artistic visions of how the future will pan out. In films and books we have been shown everything from sleek space-age technological dreams to dark, zombie-infested post-apocalyptic worlds, from grim cyberpunk metropolises to harmonic ages of enlightenment. We have seen visions of utopias and dystopias but through our myopia can only glimpse the world of tomorrow.

The uncertainty of the future leads to the endearing notion that it can be shaped in whatever way we choose. Creative individuals show us their perspectives, observing what they see around them and dictating a potential future from what they experience.

In the early 20th century, a glutton of creators began to examine the reshaping of society at the end of the second millennium. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World paints a picture of a future showing a society monitored and controlled by the addiction to drugs and the genetic engineering of human beings. Huxley was critical of the growing apathy and hedonism in American society (particularly in California) and wrote this book as a satire on how the world could be if this behaviour became mainstream. Fritz Lang’s celebrated masterpiece Metropolis deals with a jarred future where the gap between wealthy and poor in a supermodern city is virtually un-bridgeable. The concept was in response to poor working conditions faced by the lower classes at this time. In 1984, George Orwell observed the oppressive nationalist uprisings in 1940s Europe. He studied the dictatorships of Stalin and Franco, and watched how propaganda was used in World War II as a political tool to rally masses of individuals into a system of belief under the autocratic rule in a totalitarian state.

The autocracy of Orwell’s future, the ovine subservience of Huxley’s and the gap in wealth and power in Metropolis are all visions embedded in current affairs from when the works were created. They are preoccupied with history and political movements, and show possible ultimate directions that society can take if totalitarian-style political systems are accepted by the masses and implemented. It is interesting to take these three works and see how sections of them were near accurate predictions. Certainly Fritz Lang’s perception of the growing gap between rich and poor is poignant to those protesting in Occupy movements throughout the world. And of course Orwell is often cited when we see video cameras on street corners or hear bleating monotonous pop music on the radio.

Later 20th century models saw the dystopia taken tongue-in-cheek. The dank and dreary future worlds of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and 12 Monkeys play with the director’s frustrations at an overabundance of social order and red-tape. In both films the protagonists find themselves bound by rules and a level of order that is so meticulously ordained it is uninhabitable to the rebellious human spirit.

Another alternative to the future model developed in the second half of the 20th century. The end of civilisation altogether began to be toyed with by creative practitioners. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) harked back to biblical stories of the apocalypse – the end of the human race. “When hell is full, the dead shall walk the earth,” utters a preacher at the beginning of the film, as the undead begin to rise and slaughter the human race. Like earlier futuristic writing, Romero’s is a social observation, looking at the decay of society into an anarchic mess. The idea of zombies and the spread of the end of society took a turn in the 21st Century after we witnessed the spread of HIV and other blood-transmitted pathogens. Rather than the dead reanimating, the zombie genre now often deals with a pandemic that spreads to end society, a-la 28 Days Later (2002).

Comparatively, another apocalyptic end comes in the form of war or nuclear fallout. This model deals with the disasterous end of human civilisation at our own hands. David Brin’s The Postman hints at war as the end of civilisation, but blames the survivors for their own downfall. Video game series Fallout creates a post-nuclear apocalyptic vision as society attempts to rebuild in the ashes.

Interestingly, Fallout, although a recent game, plays on the 1950s-style “Modern Future” theme harking back to Disneyland’s Tommorrow-land area and attractions such as the Monsanto House of the Future. In the duck-and-cover fear-mongering of the Cold War era, the nuclear dystopia emerged. The use of this mixed past/future style in Fallout borrows from the era when the idea first grew roots, but places the story in the future. This is similar to the Steampunk genre, which gives historical fiction (usually Victorian) access to modern or futuristic apparatuses like electricity or automatons. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is also interesting as it embraces the film noir style to ground the movie in the past while juxtaposing the style with imagery of the future. Like Fallout or Steampunk, this blends two eras together to create a future that relates to the past directly.

Not all future depictions are bleak. The 2009 film Moon by Duncan Jones depicts a world where energy is abundant, powered by moon stations. Although the film centers on the discontentment of the protagonist as a lonely employee providing this energy, it hints at the peaceful unity of a utopian world of wealth and abundance.

In Science Fiction the future is often portrayed as life in outer space, with technological advancement leading to a wealth of human comforts. This can range from the semi-dystopic visions in Wall-E to the more fantasised premonitions outlined in Star Trek or Star Wars. But even these stories continue to deal with contemporary themes. Wall-E is concerned with the environmental destruction of the earth and the complacency of society. Star Trek features a comprehensive assortment of alien creatures that mimic the social structures of current societies.

Each future compiled by our cultural masterminds is in essence an amalgamation of their present, their teachings from history and their predictions of the possible future outcomes. As the weight of the Occupy movement is hammered home, more analysis of the disparity in division of wealth may lead to cultural investigators returning to the theme of disparity of wealth as in Metropolis or H.G Wells’ The Time Machine. Or perhaps the relentless advancement of Apple innovations (we can only presume Steve Jobs left a notebook behind) and Google’s cornering of the online stratosphere could lead to Blade Runner or The Matrix style technological dystopias being produced. The strongest and most recent sample of futuristic creativity I have come across is the fantastic interactive online page, Collapsus, which deals with the current energy crisis.

The future that is shown to us by popular culture will always be constrained by the limitations of imagination. We can only predict possible outcomes that seem plausible based on what we currently understand of the present. Erratic events like the spread of HIV or the detonation of the first atomic bombs will always alter future predictions to take in these new variables

Still, as a society we are the creators of the future. Cultural formats can give us a glimpse of an idea, but it is people who will make the future. Whether we follow these cultural messages by donning a Guy Fawkes mask on Wall Street or turning off a light in a room you are not using, or we simply exist with one eye on our own future lives, the future is in the hands of those in the present.

As for the writers and creators, it is impossible to predict what futures they will come up with next.

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