Originally an essay and then expanded into a 1992 book, ‘The End of History’ by US political scientist Francis Fukuyama was an instant philosophical response to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the climax of the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Retrospectively perceived by some as having its judgement clouded by the same wave of euphoric optimism as the rest of the West at the beginning of the 1990s, perhaps we can forgive the apparent naivety in declaring the final triumph of liberal democracy after an ideological battle that had spanned half-a-century; it’s easy to forget how such moments feel – and how they lead us to get carried away by possibilities – because it seems so long since the world experienced one. Yes, we know now that the party was pooped by successive gate-crashers like sectarian civil war, ethnic cleansing, Radical Islam, the resurgence of Russia and China, and Identity Politics; but the early 1990s was probably one of the last times people looked to the future and saw something other than dread. It’s understandable if nostalgia for that feeling occasionally surfaces, especially at a time when endless Doomsday narratives have made the future as unappealing as the present.
The future as a construct of the imagination always swings between Utopia and Dystopia; but it can depend on whose imagination is picturing it as well as the present in which that future is being imagined. It was telling that when Europe joined hands and strode into the brave new world of universal capitalism in the early 90s, the futures that had been envisaged for decades on either side of the Berlin Wall vanished. Suddenly, there was no need to dream them; now we were all singing from the same hymn sheet we could finally consign the bad futures to history and make the good futures a reality. Only, we didn’t quite manage it. And as it gradually became evident we weren’t managing it, those old abandoned futures unexpectedly re-emerged as solace for some. A collective sense of loss has a long and winding tradition in British cultural life, though it usually hankers after an irretrievable Golden Age just beyond living memory; this time round, the Paradise Lost was not an imagined past, but an imagined future.
As the brief promise of the post-Cold War world swiftly began to disintegrate, the real beginnings of ‘retro’ as a commercial and a creative force developed as a response; this was represented not only via a continuous revival and recycling of past trends, fads and fashions whilst contemporary progress appeared to grind to a halt, but as a conscious reclaiming of the future we never got. In the more esoteric corners of pop culture, retro adopted the fanciful genre term of ‘Hauntology’ and could be manifested as a newfound fascination with, say, the 1960s output of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This ‘retro-futurism’ celebrated the electronic soundscapes we were supposed to be chilling out to in our Moon-bases or colonies on Mars, the very places that Radiophonic composers such as Delia Derbyshire no doubt pictured when creating sounds intended to accompany the futures we were robbed of. Analogue recordings on vinyl or cassette and vintage synthesizers have all been resurrected as symbols of a past that looked forward, regardless – or possibly because of – their sonic imperfections; but it would be wrong to dismiss this as kitsch. This isn’t ‘Mama Mia’; there’s more to it than that.
The revived popularity through repeat screenings of Gerry Anderson’s 60s puppet shows in the 90s was itself a commentary on this yearning for a future we had been led to believe was ours; strings aside, these were always set in near-futures, mirroring cinematic ‘live action’ contemporaries such as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange’; even the first few films in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise clearly had the astronauts catapulted into the planet’s dim distance from an almost-recognisable present day, give or take a decade. When Gerry Anderson finally ditched Supermarionation and hired flesh-and-blood actors with the 1970 series, ‘UFO’, he set it no further than ten years ahead. The memorable opening titles of the show routinely flashed up the year ‘1980’ on the screen. Of course, it didn’t take long to get to 1980, and by then the programme’s late 60s Pierre Cardin concept of ‘the future’, with its shiny silver fabrics and purple wigs, already seemed quaintly antiquated. Within a decade, the naive vision of space exploration for all had been curtailed by earthbound economic realities and a decline of interest on the part of the public.
As a five-year-old watching James Burke host the last Moon Landings on TV and straining my eyes to see the Moon Buggy driving along the lunar surface from my bedroom window at night, I was utterly convinced this would be as common an experience as taking the train by the time I came of age. All the landmark dates on the sci-fi calendar – 1984, 1999, 2001 – always appeared just out of reach throughout my childhood, yet when we did reach them, they bore little resemblance to what the creators of 60s and early 70s sci-fi and futuristic fantasy had prophesised. 2001 isn’t now remembered for a manned voyage to Jupiter, but a manned voyage into the World Trade Centre.
Whenever I Skype someone, I think we have at least achieved one thing that past visions of the future promised we would have – an effective ‘video phone-call’; but how much failed en route? I watched a mid-70s TV ad for Concorde the other day, and even now it still looks like the most space-age form of travel on Earth imaginable; yet, as we all know, the supersonic aircraft age ended in 2003. The hovercraft as a commercial passenger vehicle could cross the water from England to France in half-an-hour before the advent of the Channel Tunnel – and it looked sufficiently futuristic; but this was another casualty of competition and circumstance during the first few years of the 21st century, before we even got the personalised hovercraft ‘Tomorrow’s World’ once implied we’d all have to get us from A to B quicker than a car or a bike. Meanwhile, the jet-pack has never really progressed beyond movies or staged stunts, electric vehicles remain an expensive luxury for the ecologically-minded, and driverless cars are still an option denied the general road-user.
An entire meal in a pill is technically here if one thinks of the vitamin-packed liquid supplements provided to those with life-threatening illnesses incapable of digesting food, and mass communication is one area that has surpassed the technological achievements envisaged half-a-century ago. We have little bits of the old future on tap, yet it still doesn’t feel like we’re there. The laudable racial harmony achieved by the crew of the USS Enterprise was something we were pretty close to when Obama was elected President in 2008, yet the cancer of Identity Politics intervened and is now carrying us back to the safe space of separate drinking fountains. A week in which a mediocre race-baiting Labour MP can milk an incident so that it slots into an oh-so predictable narrative and a Presidential running-mate gets the gig solely on the basis of her sex and colour doesn’t say to me that we’re poised to boldly go where no
man person has gone before.
Yes, one could say our 2020 should comprise listening to the Radiophonic Workshop on Quadraphonic eight-track cartridges as we consume a meal condensed into a Tic-tac from the comfort of our homes on the Moon; but it doesn’t. We’re more concerned about gender pronouns and whether we can refer to ‘individuals with cervixes’ as women without being cancelled by polite society. Academic Sean Albeiz described Hauntology as ‘sonic fictions or intentional forgeries, creating half-baked memories of things that never were – approximating the imprecise nature of memory itself’; when the new future seems deprived of the one thing the old future offered us – hope – it’s no wonder the allure of the old future wins out.
© The Editor