Future-forming interdisciplinary research

Back to the Social Futures


Having unlocked my phone with a fingerprint, I begin writing this article on my smartphone. On this device I have access to video calling, contactless payment and 3D mapping software, which in the 1980s were only visions of the imagination. Last month, the day in which the characters Doc Brown and Marty McFly travelled to in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, the 21st October 2015, occurred. The future is now in the past. The day resulted in hundreds of articles exploring how various ideas and concepts in the feature did or did not become a reality in the years since the films original release. I’m not going to list the rights and wrongs of the film, there are plenty of articles that serve that function. As every media outlet jumped at the chance to produce a listicle or two, Toyota even reunited Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox to discuss the minutiae of the production’s predictions. Instead, I’m interested in the ways in which films of the past demonstrate how futures are often approached.

The visions in the Back to the Future trilogy are soft compared to other science fiction films. It is by no means a Kubrickian dystopia or a Mad Max oil deprived energy system. Instead, what is presented in Back to the Future is a vision of pure consumerism. Want a flying car? It’s yours for $39,999,95. How about a 30-year-old word processer? Now they’re antique collectables. Even the plot involves characters in the future who wish to make as much money as possible, so they can purchase as much as they can. There is no mention of debt or poverty; instead the future is a place where consumer overload is accessible to all.

The pastel colours and post-modern style of Hill Valley, the film’s setting, shows how the idea of the future is very much concerned by the experiences of those in the present. Predictions are developed from views that transfer current experience to years ahead. For example, the ‘baddies’ in the film wear clothes that look like they have taken inspiration from the ‘New Wave’ singers of the 1980s. Representations of the future on film often involve ideas that are already present in our cultures, and Back to the Future is the perfect example. For the audience watching the film when it was first released, the future would have been easy to recognise and understand. The humans dress similar, they talk similar and they still buy and sell goods.

Back to the Future II as a visual source may present a rose-tinted view of the future as it is pure nostalgia for many who have grown up in the period between Marty McFly’s present and future. On Facebook, 27 million people generated 45 million posts, comments and reactions about Back to the Future on the 21st October. In many ways this nostalgia for the futures of the past can increase optimism for the future, we look back to the film now and consider that the film did not mention the Internet or mobile phones. Looking at what life might be like in 30 years time from the point of the future can help visualise how much more (or less) we can develop in terms of technology. In the film a car is fuelled using household waste because it can, not because it has to. Alternative sources of energy are now needed and the nostalgia generated by Back to the Future and other films which focus on future times, can help restimulate the conversations about alternative futures. The maladaptation of the present reality through nostalgia is one which shows how central memory is to moving forward.

So which cinematic futures are ahead of us? 2019 fast approaches, the year in which Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is set. Although we may not have to deal with Replicants, the vision of Los Angeles as a globalised city is not too different from the Hong Kong or Shanghai of today. The not too distant futures of the not too distant past are ones that we should take note from. These cellular visions may often appear as if they only generate imaginative thoughts, but the films themselves often demonstrate how social the future is thought to be, and the impact of culture in shaping what is yet to come.

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