Sunday, May 3, 2015

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future: An Interview with Paleofuture's Matt Novak by Cristina Preda

Following is a guest post by Cristina Preda in which she interviews Matt Novak of the Paleofuture blog about one of her favorite books residing in the Morbid Anatomy Library: Corn and Horrigan's Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future.
In 1984, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. opened Yesterday’s Tomorrows, an exhibition showcasing hundreds of objects and ephemera from the American mid-century as they pertained to people’s visions of the future, and a book by the same name was published as a companion. Written by the exhibit’s curators, historians Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan, Yesterday’s Tomorrows explores the communities, homes, transportation, weapons and warfare of our supposed future. Copies of the book eventually found their way into the Morbid Anatomy Library and into the hands of Matt Novak, writer of Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog. I spoke to Matt recently about American retro-futures, collecting, and how an exhibit he never saw changed his life. 
How did you come to discover Yesterday’s Tomorrows? 
Back in 2007 I was finishing up school at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and was looking for a topic for a blog for this class I had started. It was a writing class where you start a blog, and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. There’d been this idea that I’d been thinking about for a long time which was how people of the past imagined the future. So, I started the blog and expected it to be just something that would run its course through the class. The more I researched it, the more I loved the topic, and I came across this book called Yesterday’s Tomorrows which really helped solidify that this was something worth exploring further. After I was done with school, I reached out to one of the authors of the book, Brian Horrigan, and it turned out he lived literally a mile down the street from me. 
You mentioned that he gifted you some of the artifacts from the original exhibit. What were they?
Some books and magazines, some really unique one-of-a-kind stuff like personal letters from Buckminster Fuller, some photos. [Brian Horrigan] interviewed Buckminster Fuller shortly before he died in the early eighties and gave me some recordings from that, illustrations and photos from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, film stills from old futuristic movies like Things To Come, old newspaper clippings, and a bunch of things he used to help do the Smithsonian exhibit and the book.  
Did you consider yourself a collector prior to receiving those items?
I was kind of a collector before that. I almost immediately started buying old books and magazines. Part of the mission of the blog was to introduce new things to the internet. So many people think of blogging as just regurgitating images and reblogging, and I was trying to digitize stuff to help contribute to the strange, beautiful, weird thing that we call the internet. I think that’s part of why I was lucky enough to be successful with it. I was putting stuff online that people hadn’t seen yet. 
What is your most prized item?
That’s a tough question! There’s this one letter from Buckminster Fuller that’s written in his own hand. My favorite part about it is he underlines the year 1974 and puts a couple exclamation points after it. I just love that detail that speaks to his excitement that it’s the future. I have a couple video phones from the 1980s. I’m obsessed with the video phone because it’s something that arrived but not in the form that we expected. I think that that’s what makes it interesting—that even if someone is absolutely correct the prediction is often in the eye of the beholder. 
A lot of architectural imagery up until the 50s depicts these grand vertical sprawls with impossibly tall buildings interconnected by bridges and roadways. After WWII, communities begin to sprawl outward. Would you agree that the shift was informed by, say, McCarthyism and espousing the virtues of American capitalism and individualism? And in this regard, does the role of prognosticators become implicitly entangled with toeing the party line?
If you’re looking at consumer-based futurism, of course there’s a certain aspect of conformity. I think I take issue with the idea that the first half of the 20th century was only about moving upward. That’s certainly a vision of the future that architects embraced, especially in the 20s with the huge rise of the skyscrapers. But there’s significant pushback when you look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of utopian futuristic society in the 1930s. His Broadacre scheme was a scheme to push people out—it was an early vision of suburban America. We often like to think that a dominant narrative of any given era’s futurism is the only one. We have to remind ourselves that people in any given generation don’t all think alike. I fall into this trap everyday and I have to continually pull myself back and remind myself that no matter how dominant a narrative was, there was always someone who said, “wait a second here, this not how it should be done and this is not how it’s going to be.” 
I noticed that the workplace of tomorrow is missing from the book and that struck me as odd since Americans are so work-obsessed. You talk about this in The Late Great American Promise of Less Work. What happened that made it so un-American to imagine a less laborious future?
It seems to me that we have decided that it’s un-American to aspire to work less, which is very strange. Even people in the 1950s and 60s who were conservatively-minded believed that taking long vacations was a sign that you were doing something right. There does seem to be this incredible shift that happens in the second half of the 20th century where it’s no longer the ideal, where desiring to work less so that you can either spend more time at leisure or with your family is somehow seen as un-American. It’s disconcerting, especially given that we don’t have the same rights that a lot of other developed nations do when it comes to maternity leave and guaranteed vacation time. It’s almost as if there’s been a narrative that has totally warped and is currently poisoning our culture that the only thing you should aspire to is to work yourself to death.
Do you think there’s any getting back to that mid-century dream?
I don’t see the tide turning any time soon, but I think it very well could if the wealth gap continues to grow. So much of our current troubles have to do with that wealth gap, and if it continues to to grow there will be people who realize that government does have a role to play in certain things such as parental leave. These are basic things that every other developed country has figured out that aren’t even on the national agenda.  
Regarding the home of tomorrow, you point out that people in those years were preoccupied with protecting their homes from the elements. How much of that had to do with actual comfort and how much was escapism vis-a-vis fear of nuclear warfare?
There was almost a “fallout shelter chic” to a lot of things. You see this in a lot of mid-century modern design. 
You’ve promised to eat the sun if the AeroMobil flying car is actually released to the public in two years. I agree with your points as to why it won’t happen. It’s so impractical that it’s stupid, and we need to get over the flying car. Where would you like to see future transportation go instead?
Personally, a combination of more mass transit and better alternative fuel for passenger cars. I live in LA, and for a couple years I didn’t have a car which astounded people. 
The last chapter in the book deals with the weapons and warfare of the future. Have we accepted that war is just inevitable for life on earth, or do we like it? I feel like futurism, and especially retrofuturism, is generally so optimistic that it’s eery. Why aren’t we imagining peace? Why are we just thinking of better, bigger ways to bomb everyone?
I think because our economy depends so much on it that we can’t imagine any other way. There’s a couple different angles by which to approach this. One is to look at removing troops from the battlefield. That was one tactic of making war less horrific. There were some visions of the future from the 1930s where giant robots would do battle, and that plays into the idea of remote war. You’re seeing this a lot today where someone sitting at a computer screen is controlling a drone halfway around the world, and that’s really not a new idea but it is one that’s becoming very much a reality in a lot of aspects of warfare today. We’re also seeing that those tactics don’t necessarily work better when it comes to defeating an enemy. When you can’t see the enemy you don’t know if you’re bombing your intended target or a mass of school children. There’s also this idea that we see time and again of people who thought that if you make war so horrific it would no longer be a thing. Nuclear weapons would make war so horrific that nations would no longer go to war, which obviously wasn’t the case. And the same goes for other futuristic weapons—let’s make things so bad that there’ll just be a stalemate and no one would ever go to war. Obviously, that never pans out. 
Joseph Corn’s challenge to you was that you never accept preconceived notions about people and their attitudes toward the future. What advice would you give someone just beginning to approach this field today?
I would say if you’re interested in this topic, look in unusual places for aspects of futurism. It’s so easy to pick up a sci-fi book from the 50s and say this is a vision of the future. What interests me more these days are weird nooks and crannies where you can find a lot of interesting futurisms in areas you wouldn’t expect. This is what makes the topic so fascinating to me. It’s not just flying cars and jetpacks. There’s the futurism of social movements, the futurism of utopian communities, the futurism of pets. You can look at any topic and there’s people who had predictions about that particular area and had some really unique ways of looking at it. The study of past futures has definitely matured since I started eight years ago, and you can find all sorts of weird stories in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be. 
  1. Illustration from Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+ by Frank R. Paul, 1925
  2. “Trade Your Troubles for a Bubble,” back cover from Amazing Stories, 1946
  3. Rick Guidice, “Sport in Space Colony,” circa 1977
  4. Syd Mead, “Megastructure,” circa 1969
  5. Still from the H.G. Wells film Things to Come, 1936.
  6. Un voyage dans la lune, 1902.

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