Visions of the future:
The Flair symposium at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin Texas this year looked at the future and Norman Bel Geddes, the visionary creator of such designs as the GM Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair. There’s a big show of Bel Geddes at the Ransom now.
Our panel was about the famous exhibit Bel Geddes did for General Motors, called Magic Motorways—high speed super highways--which pretty much came true, circa 1960. What was fascinating was that the romantic phrase “magic motorways” compelled such emotion at the time—and how brief that period of magic was, before motorways became freeways and expressways and turned from romantic parkways to dull, jammed commuter routes.
The keynote speaker was cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling—very funny and shrewd. (He noted that Bel Geddes ocean liner like A4 Airliner included a full range of passenger amenities, including a masseur on board.)
Architect Greg Lynn was there, describing projects for (it seemed many) robot companies and Alan Hess, one of my favorites: he has redeemed the great popular architecture of Wayne McAllister and others in LA.
Visitors to the GM pavilion in 1939 came away with buttons that read “I have seen the future.” The Ransom has similar buttons too. Brilliant publicity, but also a hint of something deeper.
phrase recalled the journalist John Reed, who made a famous trip to the Soviet Union after 1918 revolution and came back saying
“I’ve seen the future.”
The rest of his sentence was "--and it works."
The 1939 World’s Fair was in many ways liberal capitalism's answer to the USSR—and to the ideologies on both right and left in the years before World War II. Like FDR’s New Deal, it was a sketch for a future without central planning, but one that was centrally planned.
“The future ain’t what it used to be,” as the old joke goes. Worlds fairs have faded, but that is because film, television and the internet present new features daily.
One can speak of the institutionalization of the future in the fashion system and all the familiar tropes of induced discontent and so-called “planned obsolescence.” But today technology is doing a fine job of creating obsolescence, with little planning needed.
And futurists are flourishing and they may themselves reflect the future. To judge from the Flair conference tomorrow will be full of super fit guys with shaved heads and high tech glasses—versions of Michel Foucault with a gym membership.