Future: A Recent History

Future: A Recent History

Future: A Recent History

Future: A Recent History

Synopsis

The future is not a fixed idea but a highly variable one that reflects the values of those who are imagining it. By studying the ways that visionaries imagined the future--particularly that of America--in the past century, much can be learned about the cultural dynamics of the time.

In this social history, Lawrence R. Samuel examines the future visions of intellectuals, artists, scientists, businesspeople, and others to tell a chronological story about the history of the future in the past century. He defines six separate eras of future narratives from 1920 to the present day, and argues that the milestones reached during these years--especially related to air and space travel, atomic and nuclear weapons, the women's and civil rights movements, and the advent of biological and genetic engineering--sparked the possibilities of tomorrow in the public's imagination, and helped make the twentieth century the first century to be significantly more about the future than the past.

The idea of the future grew both in volume and importance as it rode the technological wave into the new millennium, and the author tracks the process by which most people, to some degree, have now become futurists as the need to anticipate tomorrow accelerates.

Excerpt

Every present is great with the future.
—Gottfried Leibniz, 1703

BUCKLE YOUR BUCK ROGERS SEAT BELT TO TAKE A JOURNEY THROUGH time. Although any time is a good time to look back on the future, the first decade of a new century and millennium is an especially apt moment to reflect on how visionaries of the last 100 years or so saw tomorrow playing out. The history of the future is as important and revealing as our “standard” history—the history of the past—but is undervalued and relatively little known, the reason why this book was written and why it might be worth spending a bit of your own future with. “In the recorded history of man,” wrote Anne Fremantle in 1955, “it may well be that the visions of the future, of other worlds, of the shape of things to come, have played as great a part as the remembrance of things past,” the remembrance of things future being the story of this book.

Besides the obvious but largely overlooked need for a full telling of how visionaries imagined the recent history of the future, particularly that of America, there is considerable need for additional context by which to locate today’s vision of tomorrow with those of yesterday. A look back on how people looked forward reveals that while it possesses certain common themes— technological progress, scientific breakthroughs, and a Utopian (or dystopian) perspective, among them—the future is not a fixed idea but a highly variable one that reflects the values of those who are imagining it. There is, I argue, not one narrative of the future in America since the end of World War I but rather six, each one strongly tied to the cultural dynamics of its time. It also becomes clear how the idea of the future, largely limited to “experts” in the early decades of the twentieth century, grew in both volume and importance as it rode the technological wave into the new millennium. For better or worse, we’re all futurists now, the need for each of us to anticipate tomorrow part and parcel of everyday life.

It should hardly come as news that the future, that is, that which is yet . . .

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