Today and Tomorrow

I have recently been introduced to an absolutely fascinating series of pamphlets written at the end of the 1920s on the theme of ‘Today and Tomorrow’ (being re-catalogued here, as part of a major research project).  And I’ve been wondering about its modern equivalent.

Published by Kegan Paul, more than 100 pamphlets were written between 1924 and 1930, by a range of leading thinkers and commentators, addressing themselves to ‘the future of…’ their various areas of interest and investigation.  A dedicated and serious look into what the future held across a range of scientific and arts disciplines.  Imagining our future in order to better understand today.

It’s a fascinating period in our literary and cultural history, during which artists frequently took on the challenge of anticipating, projecting, or even predicting the future.

Think of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).  The self-acclaimed Futurists were addressing similar issues slightly earlier.  A period of 10-15 years during which there was an extraordinary interest in the future.

Perhaps it is not surprising that this inter-war period which saw massive changes in technology and in global politics should become transfixed by what the future held.  A mix, perhaps, of fear and excitement.

There are interesting parallels to be drawn with the history of the world over the last 10 years or so, and the next.  The fear and excitement of technological change, climate change, and the ongoing tensions in world politics.  Where is our future being foretold?  Where is our ‘Today and Tomorrow’ series being written?  Where are our modern-day equivalents of Huxley and Wells – projecting into the future in order to help think through the challenges of the present?

Initiatives such as TED provide space for discussion and debate, not unlike the Today and Tomorrow series;  but the focus of discussion rarely moves beyond the world of the known.  TV would be an ideal space to explore some of these challenges, but there appears to be more of an interest in our past (whether Andrew Marr, David Marquand, or the genuinely interesting ‘Who do you think you are?’ series) than in our future.  What of the written word?  Science Fiction does not have the mainstream acceptance that writers like Wells, Huxley and others had.  And our obsession with Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings over recent years suggests a longing for a magical other world, rather than a genuine look into the future.

Which brings me to film and, in particular, to James Cameron.  He, perhaps more than any other artist over the last decade or so, has sought to think into the future.  The first Terminator movie – though set in a contemporary LA – is played against the backdrop of a future state in which there is an ongoing battle between the machines and humans.   That future scenario is one which shapes and politicises the film’s main female character.  By implication, it’s by imagining the future that we can begin to understand and re-think our relationship to the present.  The Alien series takes on a different theme, but with Avatar, Cameron has moved back into that space which deals with the future and the present.

Avatar is about the battle between the US Army and the natives of a future, far-away land, for the exploitation of the planet’s scarce resources.  Although more obviously a product for a contemporary special effects-and-adventure-loving market, the film nonetheless takes on that ‘Today and Tomorrow’ theme.  Indeed, as in the Terminator, it’s that tension between the present and a possible future which creates a certain feeling of discomfort on which the fear and excitement in the film can be generated and sustained.

Perhaps, as The Terminator and Avatar suggest, looking into the future is too frightening a prospect to take on in anything more than mass consumption movies such as these.  But, as I read yet another newspaper article about the anticipated failure of our world leaders to strike a deal in Copenhagen, credit to Cameron that he’s willing to give it a go.

2 thoughts on “Today and Tomorrow

  1. Nice post graham and reminds me of a great presentation I saw a few years ago about the history of futurism which showed how limited our imagination frequently is when imagining the future, tending to extrapolate the present along one particular dimension rather than envisioning new possibilities. As Taleb argued in the Black Swan we are pretty terrible at predicting the events that affect us most and yet we still idolise modern day soothsayers who confidently articulate tomorrows world but don’t tend to be held to account when they get it wrong. Perhaps rather than focus on the past or the future we might prefer presentism (to attempt to coin a phrase which is almost certainly already coined) as that’s the only place we can have impact – and it’s our agility and ability to react that ought to define us not our ability to predict. Anyway, thanks again for an interesting post. Roland

  2. Yes, great post. I’m particularly struck by the failure of contemporary literary fiction to engage with the great challenges facing us today. Climate change is an obvious instance. You’ve mentioned the futurists of the 1920s, and the great writers that followed also tackled the Depression, totalitarianism and, later still, the spectre of nuclear annihilation. But has any serious writer attempted to write with ambition about the similar catastrophic threat of global warning?

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