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Wednesday, 18 January 2012 23:05

The future of the future

Contemporary culture is as much a product of its past as its future. The comforts of who we were are challenged by the anxieties of who we could be.

Leila Johnston, Chris Heathcote (photo by Matt Cottam) - reproduced with permission of the authors

In conversation to discuss these concepts and their relevance to culture, advertising, and society, are Leila Johnston and Chris Heathcote.

LJ: So, Chris, when Dentsu talks about Making Future Magic, is it defending an idea of 'jetpack' fantasy futuristic-ness that is being threatened by the reality of technology? A dream-future that can never actually happen, but which we have an inherent need to dream about? And is it true that the reality that organisations like Dentsu is kicking against, is a dull but creeping future, is already here? Is it inching into our lives piece by piece, so useful we don't even notice it's here, already right under our noses?

 

CH: Making Future Magic is our way of approaching the communications problems and needs which our clients have. Advertising and marketing will continue to exist in the future, so we might as well make them as amazing as possible, using technology in interesting ways that creates work that's positive and future-facing, but culturally relevant now.

The jetpack fantasy is a retro future that remains stuck in the 50s (The Gernsback Continuum); we have so much interesting, magic technology in our lives now that it's quite hard to comprehend. But, there are few groups who harness that technology and bend it to do things in human and humane ways.

As Hobbes says, "The problem with the future is that it keeps turning into the present." And I'd say that our society's futurism reflects the present too. Is the disillusionment with the future (and many apocalyptic visions) due to the position we find ourselves in today?

 

LJ: Yes, very well put. There are a lot of theories about it, and I'm sure it goes beyond general background anxiety about what's happening to the environment. I'm quite taken with the idea that this preoccupation is a way of confronting our consciousness of our own demise.

Most End Times myths forecast it within the lifespan of "our children's children", 100 years-ish... surely - not coincidentally - about the lifespan of a person. I also wonder if our attitude to the future changes as we age; the older we get, the more we feel the limit, and the more nostalgic for our own 'remembered futures' we become. We're nostalgic for a time before we had to worry about the end - when all there was, was future.

Perhaps westerners are so captivated by the idea of destructive apocalypses because we don't have a vocabulary to understand mortality. We've become fixated on something we feel is necessary but can't see anywhere, like starving prisoners who decorate their cells with pictures of recipes. It may be a bourgeois indulgence to be so morbidly fascinated by total destruction – if we were surrounded by the reality of war and horror on a daily basis, we might not find it so titillating. So I suppose I think these fantasy futures, good or bad, are ways for us to talk about something we need to talk about, without actually saying it.

I think the future is where our wishes and fears converge. How does advertising - or anything else - make the leap from sketching a fantasy future (representing wishes) to building a real one (solving problems)? Do you think advertising has a responsibility to do more than fantasise, or should it have license to imagine and demonstrate, like Marinetti and the Futurists?

 

CH: I'm fascinated by futurism as marketing. Whilst it still happens (think of all the "Future Of" videos that technology companies like to tout), the pinnacle was probably the World's Fair in 1964. It spoke of a "space-age fair", "A glittering new city", "... the frontiers of tomorrow's world": a world where man's will could bend and tame nature. The future as entertainment, and therefore the future as advertising.

Maybe it was the breathless positivity, or just the point of view that advance is positive, but I feel that's something as a society that's been lost. Even in the 60s, the relentless push of science and technology has soured the public's view of the future through many man-made mistakes that continued for decades: asbestos, concrete cancer, Thalidomide, Chernobyl. Plus, we're distrustful of large corporations, due to the cover-ups and relentless 20th Century growth that treats people and the environment as resources, and we're still distrustful of scientists and engineers, yet they're the people that will solve the problems that we now face.

This distrust could stop us from getting out of some sticky Earth-sized pickles we've got ourselves in: bright green environmentalism vs dark green: the possibility of inventing our way into the future rather than denying it. Rather than the distracting, defeatist and high-luxury end goal of space travel and exploration, or the head-in-the-sand, Luddite call of less technology, less future, less living, can't we imagine a different future - of invention, of working together, of taking responsibility now for the next 100 years.

There's a definite role for communications, marketing and advertising. We're seeing language and frames of reference change. Genetic modification becomes synthetic biology. Nuclear power becomes carbon-free energy. Sure, some of it's weasel words. But, it's a world-sized challenge that needs the will of the public, the will of politicians and the will of companies to join together. And, in my mind, that can only be accomplished by showing and telling stories of possible positive futures as well as apocalypses. Positivity isn't in any way cool at the moment.

So, I'm excited by those trying to make such a change: Saul Griffith of Other Lab and Makani Power, who's spending a lot of time trying to explain what personal choices really impact the environment (and invent new ways to harvest sustainable energy), and Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, using urban acupuncture and design to change societies for the better. Neither is traditional marketing or advertising, but they both use the power to tell stories to change the world into a better place.

Thinking 100 years into the future is hard (and, generally, wrong). So shouldn't we look at what we can change, now, and the change to the immediate future that will have? Aren't apocalyptic visions just a get out for doing nothing, now?

 

LJ: What you say about positivity being out of fashion made me think. Saying "It's all going to shit anyway" definitely allows people to stop bothering to make an effort, though perhaps the extravagant apocalyptic visions coming out of Hollywood are more of a symptom of something else, rather than an excuse for laziness. Total destruction makes great cinema, but I suspect we need to feel secure in our worlds to be able to use apocalypses in our lives as ironic tropes. I mean, it's a bit funny even just talking about them in the plural. I have a 2012 apocalypse desk calendar, with a different apocalypse almost every day. It's supposed to be funny, but quickly becomes less so when you think about what's actually happening to the world. They don't say 'let's give up'. It's even more serious: they say "Let's treat it as we'd treat a joke'" So, again, I wonder if the prevalence of destructive fantasies in our culture points to our basic complacency, ie that our general half-asleep attitude to real disaster is partly why the contrast works, and why we find it fun as something to think about...

Maybe destruction has never been fashionable in the ad world. Adverts are, by their very nature, newness selling newness, and all the stuff that goes with that: rebirth, creation, improvement. Perhaps that positivity is a bit suspect, because newness can be expensive in many ways, and threatening too. If apocalyptic fantasies point to our complacency, maybe Utopian fantasies threaten to will things we're fond of into obsolescence. I love your photoset of the World's Fair. It feels so naïve in a way, now, though I don't know if that's because we live in an age of distrust and suspicion or because we live in the exact world it predicts, and all the concrete flyovers in the world haven't brought us happiness.

Of course, I think you're right though; that we need to be able to visualise positive outcomes, and that we ought to try to improve the world we have right now. But, I also think that fantasies might be more prevalent than we imagine. Do you think that advertising is moving into a place where collaboration and construction are possible, or will these non-traditional approaches always be niche?

 

CW: Certainly, British advertising has never been about being negative. It's about out-witting your competition rather than rubbishing them directly. And, the most interesting work is happening when other media – such as new products, web services, apps – are used, than just traditional advertising.

Faris wrote a good article about what advertising agencies do. He highlights the two business that advertising is now in: "Advertising agencies then, either make advertising, which is a service that can be displaced, or they help corporations solve business problems with creativity, which will remain an ongoing need as long as there are corporations". He uses the example of Nike+, an app that solves a problem Nike had with something other than "advertising".

But, the whole mindset of making something long-lasting – a product – is pretty different to a marketing mindset. You're building something that has to weather over time: will people still be interested, will they still need it, will it still work in 2 years' time... (OS upgrades and new hardware versions are our industries' version of acid rain). It's easy to say "build an app" or "let's make a product" but as well as the high initial costs, and potential R&D if you're doing something truly innovative, there are ongoing costs of support; even just keeping the product or app functioning as the technology world changes around the product. And so, there's often a place for new business models too, rather than just 'spend money to make money'.

Marketing agencies are great at distilling a customer's problem with a laser focus, and constructing ways to mitigate that. A lot of software and hardware creators need that help (and it's also something that some product designers are good at) so that's maybe where the collaboration can happen. Certainly, the random pivoting of some Silicon Valley startups seems like a place where both design and marketing could help.

I'm intrigued by the technological nostalgia that's overtaken our culture - in some ways it reminds me of the Victorians' fascination with ruination: using most modern technology and the cheapness of making things to reconstruct our childhoods (or even the childhoods we wished we'd had). Why is a C64 emulator on an iPhone interesting? Why would I want a Bigtrak on my office desk? I don't think that's happened before, at least as a mass movement. Also... the next generation's reaction to it: is there any way of explaining why Space Invaders was cool? Will there be Top 3000 holo-clip-shows in 2042 looking back saying "Remember Twitter? You could only 'type' in it."? There's lots of future going on but we seem preoccupied with the past.

 

LJ: Yes, it is a bit Victorian to refuse to accept what's gone, and post-modernism characterises our culture as striving to fill a gap, too, all the time blind to the futility of the effort. It doesn't matter how many Atari t-shirts you have, you'll never have enough to turn the clock back. Of course, as someone who makes a podcast named after a C64 loading command, regularly interviewing people who presented kids' telly in the 80s, I'm as guilty of this as anyone. The appeal is obvious: looking back through a lens is comforting, indulgent, and a bit vain. In the case of Instagram, it (almost) literally *is* the comfort of looking at old photos. Instagram conjures a common past, connecting us under a shared aesthetic to shortcut all the annoying getting-to-know-you bit. Do we identify with each other through a common denominator 'childhood' because contemporary western adulthood is so poorly defined?

Certainly our fantasies about the future and the past seem to come from the same place. Maybe its significant that 70s/80s developments like Space Invaders, BigTrak and 8-bit computers all put the control into your (ordinary) hands. Suddenly technology was positive, educational, and safe to leave in the hands of a child. We feel good about it, and its promise. As computers become more magical, I can understand the need for a time when you could understand a huge amount of your tech and felt in charge of it, and perhaps in some ways, of the future. But then, that feels like idealising the past, too. Maybe our generation (or at least, the Atari-loving aspect of us) is just too self-orientated to accept the fact that communal effort can construct different futures. I mean, in many ways this nostalgia is not about technology at all. I still feel pretty good about My Little Ponies - but not the horrible newones, obviously. 

 

Chris Heathcote is a creative technologist at Dentsu London. He is @antimega on Twitter, and has a blog at Anti-mega.

Leila Johnston is a writer at Made by Many, and is @finalbullet on Twitter. She is also responsible for The Event, an apocalypse-themed series of events which take place across two Sundays in February 2012 at The Albany in London. For further information and to book, visit The Event website.

 

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