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“The Future” as a sales pitch

“The Future” as a sales pitch thumbnail

"Car of the Future" as conceived by Studebaker's Director of Styling, Raymond Loewy, in the August 1950 issue of Science and Mechanics. Loewy wrote about the new styling for "tomorrow's rocket age population" but dismissed the idea of clear plastic tops and turbine engines. The three point front end was a design feature on the 1951 Studebaker. Some of the other elements of this concept model influenced the 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner. The cover art was done by Arthur C. Bade, a staff illustrator for Science and Mechanics from 1944 to 1955

No one can know the future. But it turns out we can invent a place called “The Future” and invite people to inhabit it.

In order to inhabit “The Future”–which is really just an enactment of our ideas about the future–you need the right accessories. For starters you’ll need the basics: the latest iPhone with the latest social networking app, a fully electric car (if you can afford it), and a FitBit watch. To that you can add your own personal dronepersonal robot, and a farm cube for growing your own lettuce indoors.

In fact, before the pageants we call trade shows (such as the Consumer Electronics Show, coverage of which is linked above), we had world fairs that allowed us to “see the future.” Perhaps the most important thing to note about such events is that they began by focusing mostly on scientific and technical progress and its resulting consumer products. At these events our future political and economic system apparently remains unchanged. This is, in part, because political and economic reform cannot be packaged and sold like consumer products.

Of course, I could fill up this entire piece just listing all the other futuristic devices and even places that are available to us today and not scratch the surface. We are a society that venerates progress and that always has its eyes on the future. We think of ourselves as innovative and regard innovation as almost invariably good.

My interest in “The Future” as a sales pitch comes from a series of conversations with a good friend, James Armstrong, who is currently teaching a course in science fiction film. One of the films he’s showing is 2001: A Space Odyssey. He pointed out that before the film premiered, Look magazine was circulating a video to advertisers seeking commitments for an issue that would appear in conjunction with the film’s release. It turns out that the issue would be about selling “The Future” to the public.

Has “The Future” always been a commodity available for sale? I don’t think so. I think it is a product of the fossil fuel age which freed so many people from farm labor and made them available for other pursuits such as thinking up new products and new ways of doing things. Many of those new ways took advantage of the cheap and copious energy increasingly available from fossil fuels. In other words, many of those things were self-powered machines running on steam or later electricity.

	 Radio Listeners' Guide and Call Book, November 1928. Volume 3 Number 2. Artwork shows imagined future of television.

The whole of society had to be reoriented to the constant change which new products and new approaches represented. Those who dragged their feet were “old-fashioned” or opponents of progress. The move from a society steeped in tradition to one which routinely overthrew tradition had to discover a location other than the past for people to find firm cultural footing. That place was “The Future.”

And, that future had to be designed. Streamline Moderne architecture comes out of industrial design. Automobiles, trains and many consumer products were streamlined in their design in an attempt to make them look modern and futuristic. This movement in design was deeply committed to embedding the idea of scientific and technical progress in objects which people used and saw daily.

Later the International Style was a design movement which gave us the sleek glass and steel box building. These buildings are the backdrop for an unusual French science fiction film called Alphaville. The film never actually leaves Earth, but sends its protagonist across a long bridge to Alphaville, a city on another planet that is populated by humans and looks like an International Style architectural museum. In Alphaville the future is utterly rational and menacingly so. In fact, its rationality threatens to destroy it and the people of Earth as well, something the film’s protagonist tries to prevent.

This dark tint to modernism is a frequent theme in literature and film. But in the marketing of products and services any hint of darkness is almost always absent for obvious reasons. Who wants to live in a future that will turn out badly?

Perhaps the most important thing about “The Future” as a sales pitch is that we don’t have to wait to live there. We can live there now–right now–if only we purchase the right accessories.

Those who don’t acquire them are “soooo yesterday.” Ergo, living in “The Future” actually requires that there be a living past to compare, namely all those people who are not early adopters.

Now, I bring up the term “early adopters” because it was made popular by Everett Rogers’ tome on social change called Diffusion of Innovations. This book popularized what is called the “S-curve” which graphically depicts how innovations spread through culture over time. My guess is that the S-curve was a lot flatter and longer along the time axis in, say, the Middle Ages. People then rarely imagined that they should be in the vanguard. Rather, it was their connection to cultural tradition that defined them. There was change; but it was far more leisurely.

Today, we have something right out of Dr. Seuss’s story, The Sneetches. You’ll recall that Sneetches are bird-like characters who happen to walk upright. Some have stars on their protruding bellies, marking them as upper caste.

A huckster visiting the land of the Sneetches realizes he can make money by installing a “star-on machine” to elevate the position of the lower-caste Sneetches. When the star-belly Sneetches realize what is happening, they quickly assent to use the huckster’s “star-off machine” to again distinguish themselves from these lower-caste upstarts. As you might expect, the lower-caste Sneetches make their way to the star-off machine quite quickly, and the huckster rakes in the money as the cycling of Sneetches between machines becomes constant.

“The Future” is styled as an elitist location for a certain priesthood of early adopters who can afford it–the equivalent of star-belly Sneetches. Far from being a product of the inevitable progress of humankind, “The Future” is envisioned, planned, promoted, manufactured and sold–which is why successive versions of “The Future” eventually become dated. A recent trip to Seattle and a visit to the Space Needle reminded me of this. Not surprisingly, the Space Needle was built for Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair.

It is crucial to understand that in our modern global culture, the contest for hearts and minds is not over tradition versus change. It is between competing versions of “The Future.” We have several to choose from: the business-as-usual technological future which includes burning a lot more fossil fuel; the green technology future which involves burning a lot LESS fossil fuel; the transformation of modern industrial culture into a more localized, craft and agricultural existence (something like William Morris’ utopian novel News from Nowhere); and the dystopian breakdown of modern society and its reversion to a more primitive state.

The interesting thing about all these futures–and the first two are by far the most popular–is that none of them is actually meant to be a return to a traditional past. Each must compete for terrain in the land of “The Future.” In that regard it’s easy to see why options three and four are not gaining much traction.

To deal with the enormous environmental, social and economic problems we face, I’m inclined to suggest that we come back and live in the present. In the present we can appreciate our traditions without being slaves to them, and we can evaluate possible futures without deciding ahead of time to live in a mere enactment of a possible future that locks us into a predetermined destination–one that may not turn out to be the destination we really want, nor one that will necessarily solve the problems we face.

We need a serious discussion about our common human future. But in order to do that, we will have to dispense with the “sales pitch” versions, at least temporarily, and have an intellectually honest discussion. And, that seems to be the hardest thing of all to do these days.

Caption: "Nikola Tesla, electrical wizard, foresees the day when airplanes will be operated by radio-transmitted power supplied by ground stations, as shown” Modern Mechanix and Inventions magazine, Modern Mechanix Publishing Co., Greenwich, Connecticut, Vol. 7, No. 3, July 1934, p. 261


  • “Car of the Future” as conceived by Studebaker’s Director of Styling, Raymond Loewy, in the August 1950 issue of Science and Mechanics. Loewy wrote about the new styling for “tomorrow’s rocket age population” but dismissed the idea of clear plastic tops and turbine engines. The three point front end was a design feature on the 1951 Studebaker. Some of the other elements of this concept model influenced the 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner. The cover art was done by Arthur C. Bade, a staff illustrator for Science and Mechanics from 1944 to 1955 Via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Magazine cover showing imagined future of television. Radio Listeners’ Guide and Call Book, November 1928. Volume 3 Number 2. Via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Caption: “Nikola Tesla, electrical wizard, foresees the day when airplanes will be operated by radio-transmitted power supplied by ground stations, as shown” Modern Mechanix and Inventions magazine, Modern Mechanix Publishing Co., Greenwich, Connecticut, Vol. 7, No. 3, July 1934, p. 261 Via Wikimedia Commons.

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20 Comments on "“The Future” as a sales pitch"

  1. paulo1 on Sun, 28th Feb 2016 5:16 pm 

    When I think of changing values as defined by our consumerist Society I think of suntans. How ironic that caste/worth is indicated by having the leisure time, or jinglies, to lie in the sun and change colour. Or, the obsession with being thin or having a ‘sixpack’. It isn’t that someone with a defined abdomen is stronger or healthier than someone else, it instead indicates the time and money available to work out in a gym in front of a mirror. If you add to the above the latest iphone, a car bought/financed on time, a few extravagent vacations, and a willingness to buy over-priced coffee or eat out on a regular basis, (“cooking and eating at home is just so….. borrrring”), and maybe an onerous student loan to pay off for a diploma no none wants or cares about, well we have a real cadre for the future toppling down around us.

    My wife and I are just ‘so yesterday’. I made bread this morning because it was raining and too wet and cold to go outside. We don’t own a cell phone and likely never will. My truck is 30 years old which I mostly maintain, myself. We don’t travel on vacations because we actually love where we live. (BC Coast). Our family and our shared values and love is our greatest treasure. Somehow, I think our way of life will be around long after the ravages of AI and self-driving cars make their debut. As for package delivering drones, Canada Post works just fine for me. I have a .410 with 71/2 shot ready for any drone that might fly over. Until that happens, we can keep using it to keep the racoons out of the hen house.

  2. sunweb on Sun, 28th Feb 2016 6:27 pm 

    They have been selling the “future” for a long time:
    Century of Self

  3. makati1 on Sun, 28th Feb 2016 6:46 pm 

    Amazing that most of the world’s population would just like clean water and enough to eat…

  4. onlooker on Sun, 28th Feb 2016 6:59 pm 

    From our beginnings, someone has been selling the future. It is about fear of the unknown. The future is unknown. Well Park Ave knows that so they sold us that the future would be a paradise/utopia. The technology, the advancements in medicine, more leisure time, new modes of entertainment, all of it a sales pitch to allow corporations to see their products and to entice consumers to buy them. In the meantime, the wealthy got wealthier, the military/industrial complex became what Eisenhower warned us about a all consuming powerful monster. And the price we paid. OH BOY. As the adage says they’re will be Hell to pay. The price of our rapacious desires and world destroying economy borne from this sales pitch of buy this wonderful new drug, TV, computer, gadget etc. Why because we were told the future is always better than the present or past.

  5. Davy on Sun, 28th Feb 2016 7:07 pm 

    @Paulo “Love where we live.” My wife and I love where we live also. We love our life and it is a good life. It is hard on my body to do farm work but it is truly rewarding. I have no desire to travel anymore. I just backed out of a family trip planned for Europe. I am localizing and devolving and getting old. I am simplifying where ever I can. I am also enjoying life as if I had a terminal illness. I don’t think we have many more years before times get tough even for those prepared like myself.

    The narrative of a better future is dead per reality. It is still being sold and still being bought into. The system is based on it and the power that are know how important consumption and growth are so they are going to preach the same song and dance until the bitter end. There are still people who are living the high life but increasingly more people are falling through the cracks than are living better. Every day I think about what I can live without. I think about how I can enjoy “less”.

  6. Apneaman on Sun, 28th Feb 2016 7:14 pm 

    Pain and screaming (of your women and children) is your future.

    “What is happening in the Arctic now is unprecedented and possibly catastrophic.”

  7. Apneaman on Sun, 28th Feb 2016 7:17 pm 

    Get ready cancer monkeys.

    Dozens of new craters suspected in northern Russia

  8. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 4:26 am 

    I like the past, better than the future. In the past, we had great music, great movies, big cars with big engines.
    At home, there was 8-track tapes and waterbeds. Get me back into the past.

  9. bug on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 5:01 am 

    Go is right, in the past we had way less people and way more wildlife.

  10. Davy on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 6:02 am 

    My favorite time was the 60’s. I was young but it felt like family was closer. We had less and did less but that was more compared to now. Our current efficiency, speed, and complexity has just isolated us more into a box between our ears. We have homogenized the world into boring consumerism and mass travel. In the process we have destroyed our greatest resource and that is nature.

    We don’t have to try so hard to live today because of various safety nets. Having fun is flipping a button. We used to make the best of things with some creativity. One thing about the coming collapse process we are going back to that time but without the optimism and growth. Hopefully the process will be slow enough we can enjoy the change of attitudes and activities somewhat. It will be a very big adjustment and likely violent at times. The Future looks grim but something might be salvaged. Maybe that something is our sanity.

  11. Dredd on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 6:51 am 

    The “future” is the mainstay of mainstream bull (Doomers and Doomer Watchers).

  12. penury on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 10:05 am 

    If you would like a view of the future I would recommend an afternoon of entertainment, First watch the movie “Dr.Strangelove. follow-up with “On the Beach”m have a fun day, and also get a view of the future.

  13. ERRATA on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 10:47 am 

    Oh, it’s beautiful pictures of the best times of futurism-progressivism.
    Is this a sign – cut back (dive) to the period of the best dreams?
    Hide before the grim, bad reality?
    The second thing: My private reflection on. Nikolas Tesla:
    On the end of life crazy or involved with crooks (socialists – utopians)
    His ideas were totally anti – scientific and impossible. Physicists from this laugh.
    Visions of socialists – utopians could not, stop the tragedy of the Second World War.

    It is sad, people do not know the basics of physics and believe in different fairy tales, (having the character of “religion”) around the character N.Tesli.

  14. makati1 on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 5:58 pm 

    penury, you are right on … unfortunately. Most on here are not old enough to appreciate the past as a view of the future. Both are good movies.

    Some of us can remember before Go Speed’s 8 tracks. How about vinyl 45s or 78s? I remember when the transistor was the newest techie thing and computers filled a whole floor of a building and were less powerful than the cell phone we carry today.

    I can accept a lifestyle with outhouses and eating what is in season. No personal cars, TV, cell phones, microwaves, refrigerators, internet, etc. I wonder if many here have even really considered that future? LOL

  15. Practicalmaina on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 8:59 pm 

    Errata are you attacking tesla? The guy who designed the grid that you are using and a majority of the basic components in your computer?

  16. twocats on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 11:37 pm 

    Induction motors – fans, vacuum cleaners, compressors, Air conditioning, refrigerators.

    recently DC motors, etc (1980s on) have made a comeback, but Tesla dominated the 1900’s.

    His end of life story was more sad than laughable. He wasn’t the greatest businessman in the world. To a lot of scientists that’s a compliment.

    That his late work was a bit “out there”, I point you to this:

    It’s taken 100 YEARS! to MAYBE SHOW that Einstein was right!! Okay, maybe we need to not idolize or theologize science and scientists, but that shit is pretty freaking amazing.

  17. ERRATA on Tue, 1st Mar 2016 9:54 am 

    [@ Practicalmaina on Mon, 29th Feb 2016 8:59 pm ]

    This requires a detailed explanation:

    In the case of Tesla you have to distinguish between good and bad things.

    I know that Tesla has made many important inventions, and I appreciate the effort.
    It is worse with various pseudo – inventions completely unscientific.

    For English – version Wikipedia page politely removed chapter: “Tesla and the Free Energy”
    This can be found in other language versions and on other sites.
    “The concept of free energy was a kind of obsession with Tesla, who at the end of his life he used every spare moment to find her.”
    Tesla claimed: (…) tamed cosmic rays and I made to serve as a drive (…). I worked hard on this for over 25 years, and today I can say we did. (Quote of 10 July 1931. Brooklyn Eagle). ”
    “His lifetime Tesla proved that such a machine would violate several laws of physics, especially the law of conservation of energy” (!!)
    This chapter of life when he tried to build a “mysterious tower” – she had to distribute free energy for all ??

    After all, it could not succeed – so it was pointless!
    Maybe Tesla dreamed that in this way prevent the war? (It’s just a hypothesis)
    But what it is unscientific – it is irrational, it could not succeed. ( Wasted effort.)

    I and World War II broke out and terribly devastated Europe

  18. Practicalmaina on Tue, 1st Mar 2016 12:24 pm 

    I am aware of Tesla and his beliefs of free power from the vacuum. Who is to say that Wardenclyffe tower would not have worked? You know better than the father of modern electicity? How is light emr hitting a photovoltaic panel different from a insulated conducted capturing the energy from the ionesphere different?

  19. Practicalmaina on Tue, 1st Mar 2016 12:32 pm 

    *conductor. The man conceptualized entire fields of science and engineering. He wanted to end war and give everyone free power. Edison wanted power and everyone under his boot, and was not afraid to electrocute animals to try and smear Tesla’s ac. Ditto for JP Morgan, his only interest were his own financial interests (oubviously)
    Tesla was a dangerous man to Edison and Morgan, as he truly only cared about having enough money to continue to experiment.

  20. dooma on Wed, 2nd Mar 2016 6:01 pm 

    For anyone who is interested…

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