Lessons from Retrofuturism

Biases define the limits our imaginations when thinking of the future, and it’s difficult to move past biases when they’re made up of all one could possibly know. Black Swan Events and Falsifiability speak to the phenomenon that predicting what will unexpectedly and completely change is very difficult. A person in 1999 couldn’t possibly predict the Patriot Act, Tinder or Donald Trump becoming president*. Most of our limitation to predict these unique events comes from the bias of our lives lived up to that point. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, it’s just the limitation humans are burdened with. We are destined to arrive in the future with the baggage of having lived in the past. And those who have already survived through that suffering are futurists of the past. What makes a vision of the future seem insightful decades later? What makes a similar vision laughable? Retrofuturism is a catch all term for interpreting, admiring and/or mocking the visions of our time from those who came before, and it offers a few lessons about how to think about the future.

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Genres of Retrofuturism
What Makes Futurism Retrofuturism
Technocentrism
Can Technocentrism Be Helped?
Lessons from Retrofuturism

It turns out that predicting the future is hard. We were promised flying cars just like our great-grandparents were promised zeppelins.


Please note that none of the images in this piece are my own. I gave credit where I was able but the original sources are difficult to track down

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but seeing this breakdown of genres on Reddit a few months ago inspired me to actually start writing. I disagree with some of the names and categorizations, but it’s a great visual starting point. Credit-??

Genres of Retrofuturism

The image above outlines the main, overarching categories of retrofuturism. I’ve come up with a few differences of opinion, but they’re minor. One could argue that there are specific sub-categories that deserve to be parsed out, but that’s for someone else to do. For instance, you could categorize pre-industrialization futurism into its own category, where problems are solved by slightly modifying natural materials to work alongside nature and it’s limitations. Essentially Leonardo DaVinci, Su Song or Benjamin Franklin inventions and concepts. Everything is made of wood, rope, basic cement/stonework and base metals in a  form of the 6 simple machines. You could say that in modern times this was given homage to by the clues left in Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code series or the temples in the Indiana Jones series and parodied by all of the weird stuff that the Professor built on Gilligan’s Island. 

There’s also Clockpunk, Sandalpunk (??), and what I call Merlinpunk™, which is basically just wizard magic fantasy world building- spells, potions, alchemy and stuff like that. There are dozens of sub-categories like this where it is possible to talk about futurism in that sense. That would take too much time. It should go without saying, but these are not rules or guides to a genre but trends. There will be exceptions to these categorizations and genres, but the point of this piece is not to parse out every nook and cranny of retrofuturism.

Steampunk-

Credit H I Sutton. See their great post on the breakdown and possible inspiration Jules Verne had for the Nautulus

Steampunk is often credited with being the first true sci-fi vision of the future, and generally posits that everything will be solved by the pull of a mechanical lever which activates gears powered by steam engines. Webs of bronze/copper connect pressurized steams to pressurized cylinders and pistons which move any and everything. The technology has a lot of gauges. If there’s an issue, there usually is just a leaky pipe- tighten that bad boy up and you’re back in business. Weapons are single shot rifles or occasionally a Gatling gun. Jules Verne is basically the grandfather of Steampunk. Think 20,000 Leagues under the Sea or around the world in 80 Days. Who actually deserves credit for giving rise to Verne is Mary Shelley and her descriptions in Frankenstein. This era of imaginative innovation started in Frankenstein’s castle lab and was capped off by the Nautilus. Modern media which took note from these pioneers and used the retro-futurist aesthetic include Van Helsing, and (sigh) Wild Wild West.

Raygun Gothic- 

How does all of this stuff work? Probably lasers ‘n stuff. No idea who to credit.

Raygun Gothic is unlike all of the other categories in that it is not inspired by a real-life invention or technology. It is more of an aesthetic style inspired by fictional depictions of imagined alien technology. It would be like having a style named after witches or wizards and calling it retrofuturism, it’s just not the same to me, but many people include it in their descriptions. Regardless of categorization, just like stories of medieval magic all fall into the same aesthetic*, so too do pulp stories about little green men and spaceflight without pressurized suits. The idea of the laser for rayguns was purely conceptual as was space travel when this style was popularized. The aesthetics, are, as a result, very simple and cartoonish. See the architectural style Googie for an example. Raygun’s aesthetic influence is coming from pulp printouts while the material came from stories like War of the Worlds and Looney Tunes’ Marvin the Martian. It spawned throwback images from Flash Gordon, Mars Attacks and The Jetsons.

*Merlinpunk™, it’s going to be a thing

Dieselpunk-

. There’s always a zeppelin. Found on a blog which didn’t cite the source which appears to be Loboto on DeviantArt

Dieselpunk problems are solved by the flip of an electrical switch which activates pistons powered by diesel/gas engines. This is accompanied by an industrial art-deco aesthetic style with high contrast, darker, richer colors. Thoughts of the future are not only industrial but also very militaristic. World Wars and their effects were on everyone’s minds on top of the Great Depression. Also, there always seemed to be a zeppelin. These visions of the future tended to be a bit more pessimistic. Aesthetic designs are captured in Art-Deco and more specifically, the sub-genre Streamline Moderne. The original vision of the future showing this imagination is probably the 1927 German film Metropolis and was essentially spoofed by later films like the Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

It turns out that predicting the future is hard. We were promised flying cars just like our great-grandparents were promised zeppelins.

Atompunk-

Raygun Gothic aesthetics blend with a lot of Atompunk’s design. Source- found on google through Gizmodo, who gave no indication of who they stole it from

The future is nearer than you think! With everything solved by the press of a physical button which activates vacuum tube computers powered by nuclear reactors. This is another optimistic time of innovation, despite the looming threat of nuclear war. Nuclear war was a very real but highly unlikely boogieman, which didn’t really seem to shape the outlook of the future in the period. And not every invention was focused on nuclear power, but it seems that the laws of physics were thought to be soon broken, likely as a result of the recent conquering of the atom. A large amount of focus rested on getting chores around the house done at the press of a button. Visions of the future include a lot of chrome, rounded glass and brightly painted steel- like a slightly more realistic version of Raygun Gothic from the roaring 20’s. This vision was most famously pushed by Walt Disney in his original Tomorrowland. Monsanto’s House of the Future is also a very clear and well preserved look into the mindset of futurists of this age. This vision is now mocked by the Fallout game series.

Transistorpunk- 

How could they possibly keep track of all of those levers and buttons while wearing those dumb helmets? Credit- 20th Century Fox- oh god, no, it’s Disney. Credit Disney. All credit to Disney. Long Live M. Mouse. Forgive me my trespasses

Everything in this era seems solved by the press of a physical button which activates analog computers to complete a task. The 70’s were a rough time, and this is a rough vision of the future. Star Wars famously brought forth the concept of the “used future”, where set designs of the future weren’t shiny, new and unnatural, but worn down, rusted, dirty pieces of equipment and buildings that had been in use for a long time. The aesthetic is a mix of heavy plastic and metals and interaction with a computer screen with an MS-DOS type operating system, one without a mouse that depended on typed commands for everything. There were also a lot of flashing, square plastic buttons on dashboards. Again, Star Wars brought this vision of the future to the forefront, but the original Alien also did a great job of it by showcasing the technology of the future on the Nostromo. These visions were purely futuristic at the time. Since this style of futurism is so recent, there aren’t many tongue-in-cheek callbacks to it. Recently, Netflix put out a miniseries called Maniac which definitely goes back to that vision of the future before using technology to induce fantasy hallucinations/simulations, but there aren’t many other examples. Yet. 

Cyberpunk- 

Even more so than Transistorpunk, Cyberpunk is too new to be looked back on and honored/mocked. It’s difficult to tell, but it seems we’re still in the latter years of cyberpunk futurism. Everything in this version of the future seems solved by the press of a digital button powered by complex computer software. Cyberpunk was really brought on by the convergence of complex computing and the internet. It’s aesthetic is glass and clean, stainless steel. The outlook is a mix of optimistic and overtly pessimistic, perhaps as a result of the feeling, whether perceived or real, about the radical inequality of classes. The setting is usually a advertisement ridden, neon lighted urban hellscape dominated by Japanese culture influence and loomed over by impending climate disaster. The original Blade Runner is probably the best early look at this vision of the future, bridging the gap from transistorpunk to cyberpunk- the outlook is pretty drab. Later installments like Minority Report starts out fairly optimistic, with a turn to the Orwellian, Snowcrash is just negative the entire time, and Black Mirror goes back and forth from showing a bleak dystopia and a near-future which is near-perfect if not for the advent of a single piece of tech. 

*Transistorpunk is apparently called Cassette-Futurism or Formicapunk but I think those names are stupid and I already came up with Transistorpunk before I learned about those and like it better.

Bio-punk-

This is not a real thing and the name is not recognized or popularized yet, but I believe that imaginations of futuristic authors are running wild already and the ideas behind bioengineering will come up along with them. Also the aesthetic style is missing because it just hasn’t been finalized yet. A search on google for Biopunk reveals the aesthetics of previous generation futurim aesthetics except they’ve inserted plants growing everywhere. When I think of this movement forward, the author who first brought about thinking of these advancements is Michael Crichton, and Jeff VanderMeer is doing a great job running with the idea currently. I’m sure there are many other authors getting into this concept (and if you know of any, please email me with recommendations). GMO’s, CRISPR, bioengineering, disease eradication/manipulation, bioarchitecture (or sustainable architecture) and biological computing are the technologies and concepts that can push this sub-genre into a generation defining vision of the future. This is interesting to look at because it isn’t today’s brand of futurism quite yet because it hasn’t come into the consciousness of the public yet, but the tech is there. Some of these concepts have been around for over 70 years and are just coming into public discourse in the past decade. 

It turns out that predicting the future is hard. We were promised flying cars just like our great-grandparents were promised zeppelins.

What Makes Futurism Retrofuturism

Retrofuturism doesn’t exist in the moment, which is why the term Bio-punk is used as a sub-genre of science fiction today and is also closely related and interchanged with “nanopunk”. At the time, thoughts of the future are simply called futurism. People imagine what might result from a few decades of development like they had witnessed in the decade before and -bam- you know the future.

What makes something doomed to being categorized as retrofuturistic is a failure to take into account the evolution of society and technology over the planned development years. This technocentricism limits the view of what is possible in the future by framing it in view of what is possible today. It is a shortsighted view of technological progress where there is only incremental improvement in our development where technological means aren’t changed, only the ends.

Steampunk imagined everything being solved by steam, diesel punk imagined everything being solved by gas powered machines. Steampunk was thinking decades in the future and couldn’t see the diesel engine coming to prominence. Just as Dieselpunk thinkers couldn’t see the splitting of the atom, or Atompunk imagineers couldn’t foresee the transistor coming onto the scene. 

The key element that makes futurism doomed to be classified as retrofuturism in the future is the shortsighted narcissism of the generation from which the artist originates.* In order to imagine a world dozens of years in the future without any groundbreaking advances in technology to be discovered, it takes a strong dose of technocentrism. The subconscious belief that all technological advancements from generations before were merely steps to the new end all, be all advancement. It always seems that every generation seems to fall in love with whichever technology they were able to harness. This has happened before, is happening now and will happen again.

*I really hope that this blog will be read by someone somehow 100 years in the future and they will laugh at how quaint and naive my ideas are. That’ll be fun for me to experience since Kurzweil’s Singularity will already have happened and my mind will be uploaded to a computer, so I’ll be able to check the comments during my downtime while living the life of a baller on the SSX Tricky snowboard circuit.

The breakdowns of retrofuturistic periods are preceded by the harnessing of major innovations in the public consciousness. It often starts with and is most optimistic when the limitations of the technology are least known. Victorian Steampunk visions seemed convinced that any problem could be solved by mechanical power. It wasn’t difficult for that to give way to Dieselpunk during the transition brought on during the turn of the 20th century. Steam was powerful, but it had real limitations- diesel was sure to achieve all of the means that steam never could. Diesel was essential in the gift of human flight, after all. Okay, so the answer to everything is diesel, until nuclear power was discovered.  

The period from the mid-40’s to the mid-60’s (atompunk) was one where the public believed that the world was going to be either powered, saved or destroyed by atomic energy in the future. If you put yourselves in the shoes of someone from this time thinking about the future, you wouldn’t be out of place, even if mistaken, if you thought that the harnessing of the atom was the final equation to be solved in figuring out the secrets of the universe.

Splitting the atom was and remains a big deal. It was believed impossible for a long time and the concept was likely beyond the reach of most people’s imagination. But once the possibility was realized and reality expanded into the public’s imagination, it was the only innovation that seemed like it would matter- and all other innovations beyond it would be a derivative of this discovery. If applied, might it solve any and everything? World Hunger? Maybe solved by Atomic Gardening, using radioactivity to generate mutated plant varieties. Mathematics? A small reactor could power computers the size of entire rooms, working around the clock to solve every problem known to man.  Gas shortage? Nuclear car. Cancer? Radiation therapy. House Fires? Smoke Detector.* Modern America’s miracle technology is the internet, and many of these problems are, in one way or another, thought to be solvable with the power of the internet connected world. The echoes of retrofuturism aren’t dissipating with time.

*Oh damn, those two actually happened. 

There seems to also exist a bit of a trend based on the outlook of the country and what their futurism looks like or represents- at least in terms of what is at the forefront of these ideas. When things are going good, convenience is sought out. Steam machines for anything you can think of during the Steampunk turn of the century, automatic nuclear household appliances in the 50’s, vending machines for any and everything in the 90’s- it seems these times were much more optimistic. In the Raygun Gothic or Dieselpunk eras people imagined inventions showcasing mostly war machines, whether from fears of aliens, Nazis or Communists.

Technocentrism

When it’s looked at now, retrofuturism is often a tongue in cheek celebration of past generations views of the future. ‘If we put ourselves in the mindset of these morons from the old times, maybe we can come up with fun fake inventions for their version of the future’. Atompunk nuclear toothpaste- the radioactive crystals melt away the plaque! A steampunk steam-powered crib- let the hissing of air and the churning of pistons rock your baby to sleep! ‘What other inventions would those ignoramuses have thought was on the horizon?’ Retrofuturism often contains some level of mockery when it’s looked at now. But these people obviously didn’t think their ideas were a joke, just as futurists today don’t consider their ideas jokes either. 

As mentioned before, in the moment predictions of the future are thought of simply as futurism. Any predictor is blind to their own contemporary biases and limitations. Even if one were to be able to recognize their own technocentricity it is difficult to improve. Looking back on past predictions with a critical eye makes our self-centered examination of our own future even worse.

Can Technocentrism Be Helped?

Imagining the future is difficult. Try to imagine what music will be like in 50 years. I can’t really come up with anything that can’t be boiled down to basically modern music structure with more “futuristic” sounding instrumentation. And that’s because I can’t take into account anything other than logical next steps. Anything beyond that as a serious prediction would just be a guess. If I were to say that I think music in 50 years most closely resemble an hour long rambling monologue droning over the sound of a garbage disposal filled with glass, that wouldn’t be based on anything.* The glam-metal band Bonham couldn’t have guessed that they should have bucked the trend of hair metal being popular for the past 15 years when they launched in 1989. Instead of doing something original, they got some perms and eyeliner, slid into their leather pants and watched helplessly as, in 2-3 years time, the rock world was taken over by grunge while they were forced break up because of “creative differences”.**

*Or it’d be based on listening to a Black Eyed Peas song. Boom. Roasted.
**And because they were unoriginal douches who sucked. Boom. Roasted.

Guessing the next technology that will take over is no different. And, by comparison, musical innovation should be a lot easier to see. The evolution of Rock and Roll was taking place in the 40’s in juke joints across the South, meanwhile the Manhattan Project was being done in secret. And futurists have to take into account a lot more change when considering their vision. One aspect of what takes futurism into retrofuturism is when considering the culture of the future, they simply imagined one of two things- it would remain exactly the same, or exactly the same but everyone would wear jumpsuits. Monsanto’s House of the Future shows 2050’s people wearing 1950’s clothing listening to 1950’s music, going to 1950’s jobs and watching 1950’s tv, but with flying cars. They fail to take into account what technological progress will do to society. Because doing so is really, really hard. 

The major technological innovations that came to the forefront in the past were all at one time conceptual or overly expensive prototypes, struggling to reach viability among dozens of other world-changing technologies of the future. Someone inundated with machines powered by steam shouldn’t have any reason to assume the rise of engines running on controlled diesel explosions. And someone inundated by the technology of today shouldn’t have any reason to assume the rise of  technology X, the defining invention that might surge ahead in the 2050’s but existed in an infant stage in 2020. And any correct prediction far enough in the future to be impressive would be a lucky guess that they’d likely credit to their genius.

Apparently, today’s futurists think that will come in the form of floating touch screen/voice enabled AI. Oh wait, did I just describe the future tech in every single movie that has come out in the past 10 years in 6 words? 

It turns out that predicting the future is hard. We were promised flying cars just like our great-grandparents were promised zeppelins.

Lessons from Retrofuturism

So what lessons are there to take from this? Why are some visions of the future laughable and others spot on or strangely captivating? It’s all about predicting not only what will change, but how it will change us and every step between. My advice for not looking like a dummy when people in the future look back on your ideas is to keep in mind:

Something will change everything

If your vision is far enough into the future, it will be changed by something unexpected. There will be a Black Swan advance in the next 30 years that changes everything. You’d have to get lucky to guess what that would be, so you’re better off making sure your vision is properly focused. And it’s hard to guess what that will be, no matter who you are. Steve Jobs planned out the half-decade after he died and didn’t foresee any new technology or services coming to light- no Apple Watch, none of the subscription models that make Apple so profitable today. If Steve Jobs can get caught up in his own technocentrism, it’s fair to say that anyone can.

So an idea better be focused on the right goals

The best transistorpunk VCR imaginable has no place in a future with internet streaming. A better VCR doesn’t line up with the continued improvement instantly downloadable content. In 20 years the infrastructure around the home changed and these product manufacturers couldn’t see it coming because they were focused on their problem, not the problem. A focus on the true goal is key when looking at future ideas. Is the goal to have a better VCR or to have a better movie watching experience? The former fixes a problem that was put in place by past limitations, while the latter addresses the need itself.

Improving sensors aim to help make the unacceptable self-driving cars of today better. But that approach will only fix the issues of a problematic idea of the past. A VCR self-driving car 10x better than anything out there today. Will that get the job done? Maybe. But it’s also likely that something that comes at the issue in a completely different way will solve the actual issue. The issue being solved by those developing self-driving cars is not better sensors, it should always be autonomous personal transportation. 

Again, it isn’t reasonable to expect futurists to be able to weave together every aspect of the future. But when innovation in the world outside of an idea is taken into account, it is more likely to come close to being accurate. 

Think up and downstream from your vision

Imagining a future changing technology often depends on a few big, undefined steps before it is brought to life. Level 5 Self-driving cars will require so much further development of sensory inputs, infrastructure, processing logic and regulation that the landscape is likely to be night and day compared to the first time the Google self-driving car took itself for a spin in 2015

If one of these Black Swan technologies is developed, or has been developed in your lifetime, you can assume that the status quo is not a great place to begin your foray into the future. Life as it is known is dramatically shifted every time one of these technologies takes off. The amount of steps in societal change and technological advancement between the height of any of the major retrofuturism ages is impossible to truly quantify. If one were to try and define a step by step, causal societal progress tree from Technology A to Technology B, it would look like the ramblings of a madman- and it could only be done with the help of hindsight. And what can be thought of after your vision? Whether you’re inventing a product or doing sci-fi world building, it is unrealistic to not assume that people in the future, as they’re mocking your shortsighted retro futuristic ideas, will be thinking of their own futures.

Internal Realism Will Keep Your Vision Feasible

Credit to Henry at The Closer Look for this term. He states that Internal Realism takes the rules of your concept, no matter how fantastical, seriously. The further the consequences of this new rule/concept is explored, the more compelling the idea becomes. Now if you’re building a story world set in the future and want to implement a change to eating all meals in pill form, you can’t make the mistake of showing an image where your kitchen of the future has a cool looking knife set. If you’re inventing a flying car, you can’t imagine that the business landscape will be exactly the same as selling a Chrysler Pacifica.

On their own, these eventualities will seem out of place. Can you imagine a food court with no counters, seats or ordering windows? Starting from where you are, this can be done in small sections. If technology X is invented, you might have already missed the boat. In 2014 when everyone was thinking of their version of Grubhub, someone else was thinking ahead to how this virtual food court would be serviced, with Ghost Kitchens. There are innovations that will only be made obvious by future innovations. Thinking about them from the standpoint of solving the right problem will bring them to light.

Noticing these shortcomings has to be part of the solution to avoid being thought a fool by people in the future, even though most of what we do won’t be seen by anyone in the future because there’s simply too much stuff. Still, there are more lessons to be learned from retrofuturism, and I’ll aim to keep learning them with every new image of a flying car, robot buster or a ROBOT POLICE AUTOMATON I come across.

It turns out that predicting the future is hard. We were promised flying cars just like our great-grandparents were promised zeppelins.

Look at them control that crowd! Love that gramophone loudspeaker it has for a mouth.
Credit- Hugo Gernsback

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