It’s somewhat ironic, I guess, that if I had access to a time machine, the first place I’d travel would be the 1939 New York World’s Fair, an enormous exhibition dedicated to “the world of tomorrow.” Exhibits focused on robots, transportation, architecture, and even food, and the fair promised a future that was beyond bright. It was an optimistic love letter to the decades to come—a somewhat heartbreaking idea, when you consider that the shadow of World War II was already looming.
The reason I love the World’s Fair so much is that it’s a goldmine of retro-futurism. Retro-futurism is a somewhat mind-binding phenomenon that refers to depictions of the future that were created in the past—often the pre-1960 past. You follow? I find it so fascinating that we’re left with these relics of dreams already realized, and dreams that have not yet come to pass, if I can go semi-Galadriel on you—snapshots, essentially, of how past society pictured our present, or what they hoped it would be.
Check out the Monsanto House of the Future, a Disneyland attraction that opened in 1957 and enthused about a revolution in plastics! (It closed a decade later when attentions turned to the more exciting possibilities of space travel. Sorry, plastics.) But surely, someday, people will say the same thing about the Monsanto House’s modern-day Disneyland equivalent, the Innoventions Dream Home: “Oh my goodness, that is so hilariously dated.” (Actually, from the looks of it, we might say that next year.) Walt Disney was obviously obsessed with “tomorrow,” and essentially used the 1964 World’s Fair as a proto-Epcot (which, if you didn’t know, stands for Experimental Prototypical Community of Tomorrow, and was originally designed as a futuristic city).
Our ever-evolving ideas about transportation are also a wild ride of retro-futurism, perhaps best exemplified by the monorail (again, Disney alert!), which still hasn’t caught on as “the train of the future.” And the world of flying cars and floating highways that 1985’s Back to the Future Part II promised would arrive by 2015 is looking unlikely, unless something extreme happens in the next two years, but who knows how accurate all of this will be by 2062, the era of The Jetsons.
My favorite—and, in my opinion, the best—source for all things retro-futuristic is Smithsonian’s Paleofuture blog, written by Matt Novak. Novak is a brilliant collector of old videos, advertisements, postcards—basically anything to do with the subject of the future from the past 100 years or so—and he presents historical background as well as insight into how these ideas relate to the present day. The best thing about Novak’s collection is the way he treats the material—respectfully, as the terrain of dreamers and forward-thinking engineers. Sure, there are plenty of things that people got wrong, but often enough, there is a clear link between what was once simply a notion and is now a commonplace reality, like this clip from 1967 about online shopping. The music! The desk! The “video console”! The HAIR! And do the clothes floating across the computer screen remind you of anything? A ’90s contribution to the field, perhaps?
Novak’s blog trained my brain to seek out as many examples of retro-futurism as possible—so, for instance, this book about how to survive Y2K, the computer bug that was supposed to basically destroy the universe at the stroke of midnight at the turn of the millennium. (Spoiler alert: WE MADE IT! Shout-out to my dad, who was—no joke—on a “Y2K task force” for a major American insurance company.) Then there’s this cult-classic film The Apple, which hilariously takes place in the “future” of 1994, a world that resembled a weird, low-budget Lady Gaga video set in a ’70s-era mall. (On the other hand, watch the trailer and ask yourself: DOES Apple control our future, even if it’s not the same one?) There’s also the fashion depicted in the 1930s gem Eve, A.D. 2000!. Sample line: “Yet another designer believes that skirts will disappear entirely!”
Perhaps the best part about retro-futurism is that it allows us to understand the imagination of a time gone by—to see what society wanted, needed, dreamed about, and tried to create. It’s a powerful reminder that technology takes years—sometimes decades—to catch up with our ideas. NASA dreams big, but has to deal with the realities of funding and physics. We’ve wanted to put a person on Mars for a while now, but we also know it’s going to take more time and a lot of work to get there.
But sometimes we’re so busy concentrating on the things we don’t have yet that we forget how incredible the things we do have are. (Louis C.K. says this best.) While we most likely won’t get the Mattel hoverboards or self-drying clothes that Back to the Future wanted for us, we have a little thing called the internet. Marty McFly has a big-screen TV and a lot of fax machines (and yes, OK, an amazing pizza rehydrator). Technology is a gift—it allows us to visit the past without a flux capacitor. Just look at this article! I’m able to sit at my house, type all of these words out on a little machine, and send them through the air. (I know there’s a more accurate description of How the Internet Works, but I prefer to imagine it as floating bits of information, like in Willy Wonka’s television room, so whatevs, Trevs.) You may even be reading this on a tiny phone/computer that fits in your pocket. The future is NOW!
I don’t need a time machine to see the 1939 World’s Fair—I can go on YouTube and find images from 70 years ago, including The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, a Westinghouse-sponsored film that shows a “typical” family visiting the fair and viewing the exhibits. Aside from the gadgets, views of the fairground, and—let’s be real—fantastic fashions, the best part of the film is probably the romantic drama centered on daughter Babs and her skeptical boyfriend, Nick, who hates the World’s Fair and spends all effing day complaining about capitalism and propaganda. Their love is threatened by progress, y’all! And also by handsome Westinghouse employee Jim, who spouts out lines like “Machine production makes better and cheaper products. As a result, more people want and can buy them! That, in turn, creates a demand for more labor!” Nick hates Jim, naturally. This is the dumbest and greatest soap opera of all time.
My favorite Nick and Babs scene starts at around the 19-minute mark, and includes this hilarious exchange:
Babs: I guess we’re a little early! What do you want to do?
Nick: Anything but inspect this temple of capitalism.
Babs: Oh, Nick!
Nick: Look at them, their eyes popping out of their heads. Drooling over the very things that are taking their jobs!
Babs: Now, Nick, don’t get all excited. My family thinks that America is a pretty swell place, and I don’t want you to disillusion them.
Nick and Babs and Jim and their corporate-propaganda-vehicle love triangle 4eva! Also, please take a minute to witness Electro, the Westinghouse Moto-Man. Look at him…go. Kind of. He’s the ancient Siri, with the moves of a broken washing machine. He’s also a bit of a comedian, telling stupid jokes in a robot voice. The crowd LOVES him, and so do I.
I’m sure in 50 years, the computer I’m typing on, the screen you’re reading this on, and, really, everything around us will seem as quaint as rotary phones or typewriters. We’ll look back at the future we imagined, we’ll look forward at the future we envision, and somewhere in between, we’ll see what we got right, what we got wrong, and marvel at everything in our lives that we never even thought was possible. The Middletons thought Electro was the robot of the future, but the Roomba could kick his butt, then vacuum the floors and DJ. And, then of course, there’s us, the ultimate retro-futurists. What will we think of the people we thought we’d be after we become who we are? ♦