Even though I enjoy collecting vintage and antique artifacts, the appeal is how innovative were they for their day and age. Futuristic stuff from the past is endlessly fascinating. I don’t much care for old for the sake of old. I like old for the sake of the future.
In my opinion, futurists, past and present, are, in their hearts, the most optimistic, positive people around. Even dystopian futurists have some measure of optimism. They do imagine that the human race will survive past the fall of civilization, albeit in a more barbaric, crude form.
Of the futurists, I prefer more the utopians than dystopians. People like R. Buckminster Fuller are just more inspirational. Thinkers like Alvin Toffler seem to be more “realistic” in their vision.
Futurists started coming into their own about 200 years ago and began their unstoppable momentum around the 1840s. It was then, that visionaries understood more about the relationship between magnetic fields and electricity. Thinkers and inventors thought more in terms of how life will change, not how life will remain the same or revert to the past. Some influential people began to imagine homes of the future and cities of the future. The idea of technology equalling progress took hold.
It must be remembered that for Europe and the West, much of the world was still being colonized and explored in the 1800s. The combination of technological and scientific discoveries with global exploration created new frontiers of the mind. This was the age of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
The two writers greatly influenced not only the advent of Science Fiction, but visionary thinkers. Verne extrapolated contemporary technology with romantic adventure of far-off places. Wells imagined technology as a device to make a point in social commentary. Wells’ thinking spilled over into the dystopian when he wrote The Time Machine.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also the time of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Although they were rivals, they shared an idealized vision of better society through technology. They had dreams of a fantastic future. This time period
was also awash with writers who hoped for a brighter future. Offhand, I think of Tesla’s friend, Mark Twain.
One of Twain’s lesser known works is his 1898 short story “From the London Times’ of 1904”. The essay was written in Twain’s trademark journalistic style as reportage from the near future. Instead of a time machine, Twain came up with a gadget called the “telectroscope”. You can think of it as a combination telescope with television technology. Twain wrote this well before the age of television. Many other stories by Twain also feature progressive social and technological ideas.
Optimistic, futuristic writing continued well into the twentieth century with books from Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. However, futuristic philosophy took a turn towards the dark side in the 1970s and has pretty much remained there ever since. A prime example is James Cameron’s Terminator series.
Late 1900s writing reflects the pessimism of that age. There was the growing awareness of mankind’s limits. The age of nuclear weaponry, the Cold War, social upheaval and ecological disasters was in full swing. Writers and thinkers extrapolated this state of affairs into their visions of the future.
In terms of the present day, I see people like Elon Musk as modern day peers of H.G. Wells and Alvin Toffler. In Musk’s case, his canvas is the factory floor, not the typewriter. There is a blending of technological progress with social progress.
There is also sci-fi author Neal Stephenson’s campaign to rebirth optimistic futuristic science fiction with his “Project Hieroglyph”. The seed of Stephenson’s project is the fact that many iconic inventions of the past have been seeded by fantastic imaginings of science fiction authors. The idea is, that a return to optimistic futuristic thinking will help humanity deal with the plethora of serious problems facing us now and in the future.
More fantastic, inspirational, stories and dreams are what the world needs to lead us into a more hopeful future.