"Nothing dates the past like impressions of the future"

Was oscillating online, came across this, with an interesting quotation:

"Nothing dates the past like its impressions of the future."


I think certainly nothing speaks of an era like its dreams, and dreams do become dated.

When it comes to tech speculations its certainly easy to misinterpret an era as being optimistic -- yes Sci Fi writers loved rocket cars and space ships, but to call the 60s and 70s an optimistic era I think is a bit misleading. Of course there are dystopian sci fi futures as well... my impression of much of Sci Fi is that it was not so much about making accurate predictions as suggesting interesting possibilities, with a goal of commenting on society.

Getting a little off topic... forget about dreams, can we focus on impressions of the future?

For instance I'm not really aware of any impressions of the future that anyone had, in Ancient Rome, even in the 1800s? What did Cicero think the world would be like in the year 1000? Did anyone in the pre-industrial age foresee the industrial revolution?

Getting back to the claim, itself, are there reasons we should think it should really be true? Its easy to see why impressions of the future would age quite badly, and obviously, to observers with knowledge of the future. And its hard to think of any other subject that they should have many ideas on, but a person from our time would surely have different ideas about.

Yet, if you just ask the simple question, "How should I know a person / thing from the past when I encounter it?", its not clear that my obvious first step is to try to determine what ideas they carry about what the future will be like. Generally I would expect such a person or thing to be immediately recognizable because of stylistic elements -- perhaps style is wrapped up in this question as well though. The sleek, the modern, the cutting edge, all this is related to the future.

Is this true? Does fashion really have to do with our ideas of the future? To be honest when I put on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and go to class, I don't really feel like I'm "dressing for the future", even though I guess I am.

My instinct is that, the fashions, the design ideology, the style of an era speaks most about how that era believes they will solve the great problems. Modernism, modernist buildings particularly, of a grand, uniform design, with a utilitarian focus... speaks of a dispassionate, unified approach to science and all problems great and small, with which one may suppose all our problems may be subdued before us. When I throw on a T-shirt, I'm still solving a problem, however small... in some sense, the now pervasive "casual work environment" which has come to pervade the 90s and 2000s, I think speaks quite highly of our society -- on a typical day, I do not expect I will have to negotiate with an extremely powerful superior, or for any other reason need to curry favor with someone by dressing formally. My work place is substantially more egalitarian than that. I don't wear a watch either -- but no one wears a watch anymore except someone trying to look professional. Watches are dated -- it is clearly expedient to look at any of the hundreds of computers which will surround you throughout your work day. They are the trappings of the wealthy from a few decades ago, and while they will probably percolate down through society for a few decades to come, for all intents and purposes they are now as quaint as the pocket watch, and the "upper class" will rid themselves of them not so long from now.

I'm not really making a very strong argument that fashion reflects the ideology of an era -- at least when it comes to personal fashion, I'm only really able to argue that it reflects the technology of the era which is kind of obvious. I'm also pretty fashion illiterate, maybe there's much better arguments to be made, and maybe I should be looking at fashion statements by entertainers, rock bands, high profile people etc. the fashionistas.

I would also suspect that you can come up with lots of counter examples -- in the case of traditions, when they are kept alive they aren't seen as dated, even though they are still sort of relics of the past. Very few traditions and religions actively hold impressions of the future, I assume because, things like this have to keep it short and simple or the extra cruft won't be passed along. The book of Revelations is one of the few major examples of predictions of the future that I am aware of... but this aspect of Christianity at least doesn't seem to be the part that makes it most "dated". In my mind, the fixation on rituals, the lighting of candles, the latin, the peculiar dress and language, the frequently gothic or baroque taste of churches, these are the things that one immediately recognizes as dated.

Well, we've wandered around for a bit. What's the verdict? Is there some truth here, does "nothing date the past like impressions of the future"? Or is it just a zippy one liner in a magazine?


  1. zippy one liner, mostly, but true.

    hmm... imagining the science fiction of the Romans is a good exercise. My impression is that, in classical history, technology progressed much more slowly. Speculations of the future probably involved anticipating new political and social developments, rather than technological : can we unify this region and generate enough prosperity to build some really awesome temples? Or did the Greeks say "one day, son, we will have cement and a proper sewer system" ( or at least, "one day someone will come up with a battle tactic that can best our phalanx approach" ).

  2. Do you think that the rise of digital economy in the 90s is responsible for facilitating the casual workplace ?

    After all, now we can build reputations with content alone. When I publish a journal article online no one needs to know that I'm just sitting naked in my room. Its true, you don't really need pants to write software.

    Contrast to the past : building your reputation is going to require showing up in person at some point, and looking presentable. Even if I've written my manuscript in my hole of a room, to get it out there I need to somehow get a loan for the printing costs, and then hire a printing press to type-set it. At least one of these activities is going to require pants.

    So, I don't know if casual workplaces directly implies that the workplace is more egalitarian. Perhaps, to the extent that people are going to be judged more on the merit of their intellectual product than on the presence or absence of pants.

  3. Jake Lodwick19.9.10

    The movie 2001 is not dated at all.
    Many less-visionary visions of the future are like The Jetsons where it looks like the present except everyday items are made of new materials or have drastically altered properties. But paradigm shifts are rarely part of the fabric. I've never heard of a clearly articulated vision of the industrial revolution (or the web for that matter) before these things happened. And yet these large-scale shifts are what really separate the eras.

  4. @ Everett:

    So its true that programming can be done in the nude, but actually so can most things. You could also have made pottery in your underwear, whittled, been a carpenter, stitched and sewn, cooked, driven a large truck... the list goes on and on.

    Most everything Lawyers do other than court appearances could easily be done in the nude without negative consequences of any kind. Why then didn't this culture develop there? Or amongst truck drivers, certainly no one would catch them.

    I suspect that it has more to do with, the fact that the original computer entrepreneurs were just high school nerds in their garages, didn't really care what clothes they wore, and so they set the tone for the industry. The social demands of being a successful computer engineer are so limited, and I think it was the first entrepreneurial field in which this was really the case. I kind of doubt that, there's some crossing point in the life of a small business, where everyone is like, alright, we've made such and such amount of money, now we all have to start wearing suits.

    @ Everyone:

    I thought some more, I realized that, its basically obvious that the physical signs of age are the most reliable and telling, for objects and people. If you want to tell if a car is old, you can't rely on the shapes and curves because it may be "retro", its easiest just to look under the hood / body and see if there is rust. Similarly if mystery person is wearing period style clothing they may just be a Goth, if you want to determine if they are really from the 1800s, look at their teeth.

    So the question only really makes sense for a "text".

    Yeah I agree 2001 is not dated. And I mean, both the Jetsons and Flintstones are sort of the same cartoon -- they don't really comment on society or the future, they just sort of act out 1950s America but with the trappings of a different period.

    I'm having a harder time thinking of something that is old, visionary, and not dated most obviously by its impression of the future. I'm sort of at a loss, not being a history major... the oldest things I've read were probably in highschool... Gilgamesh? The Odyssey? Shakespeare?

    I'm not really sure that any of these are really dated, I thought they are on the curriculum because they are supposedly timeless. If anything I would say they are dated more by their sense of right and wrong than anything else, but that may say more about me than them.

    It may be that "The Future" as we think about it and see it didn't really exist as a concept in the past -- if technology didn't change dramatically in 100 years, then maybe most people thought that there was no substantial change over time, and that the Future is pretty much the same as Now. I guess that is sort of an impression of the future though.

    So I mean, what is something that's obviously dated?

    I would say the most glaring way in which I tend to find things to be dated today is displays of chauvinism. Its pretty much the most consistent way to identify random material from the 50s, it seems to me. Maybe its all been collected by hipsters and the rest was tossed in the garbage. But nonetheless, this kind of material seems to go against the rule.

    So, I guess I'm inclined to say, the claim is drivel.

  5. To play devil's advocate, maybe there is something to "Nothing dates the past like its impressions of the future." Many genealogies of science-fiction begin with Francis Bacon's "Utopia", which envisioned a world ruled by alchemist-philosophers. Bacon is also usually nominated as the first Enlightenment thinker. The hero-engineer of Jules Verne and Golden Age sci-fi characteristic of a certain individualistic approach towards science that become obsolete with WW2. New Age scifi played with race, gender, and the nature of reality at the same time as those concepts underwent a radical redefinition in society.

    A complication is disassociating style from substance. Are The Jetsons hokey because of the fins, or because of the 50s nuclear family in space? You can (usually) date a society by its fashion, but that doesn't tell you anything important about people.

    Assignment: Compare and contrast visions of the future in these two very similar films. What has changed in 25 years?

    Futurama I (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74cO9X4NMb4)
    Futurama II (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-5aK0H05jk)

  6. common points of failure in "Futurama" :

    -- their futures are very much "the present, only more resources"
    -- this leads to unrealistic predictions for growth of energy, production, transportation speeds
    -- they fail to account for how population growth can consume increased efficiency.

    Those who assume that computational power can continue to grow may be making similar errors.

  7. More Futurama failures
    --assuming scientific progress will be universally accepted and integrated into society without hesitation or govt. red tape.

    --assuming govt. regulation and integration of technologies will be without its faults and operate logically

    --they don't account for the possibility of technological dead ends, but I guess that's pretty hard all things considered.

  8. The tone of voice in these movies is so bizarre, as though he's trying to tempt you to eat a chocolate cake... "Look, behold, this truly, truly marvelous cake. It is a layer cake, constructed patiently and diligently by the finest chefs, moist layer upon layer mortared together with smooth, rich icing. Behold the ring of cherries adorning the top of the cake, each a tender morsel of fruity sweetness floating atop a vast sea of deliciousness..."

    I mean these films are essentially propaganda right? They don't really talk about the human experience or condition, they mostly focus on the great strides forward in infrastructure and the massive new economies they anticipate. They seem to be mostly a paean to the govt / organized human efforts... in fact it seems in the past few decades, Governments of the world have achieved remarkably little in any of these directions. The most salient bits of progress in recent memory have been much more distributed, an aggregate of individuals cooperating but each on his own terms, rather than conceived of and guided by our leaders on high.

  9. The Greeks and Romans didn't believe in progress, only deterioration. A student could not be better than his teacher, in the classical imagination. So the only things they wrote explicitly about the future were things like Revelations. Other ancient cultures are no better--in traditional Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, for example, there is a cycle (which lasts some untold number of years) in which the human race gradually improves and then gradually declines, and we're currently somewhere in the middle of the declining stage. It's natural for people to perceive a decline over their lifetimes (or even a period of four years, say) since we forget the bad stuff. Progress is essentially an Enlightenment idea.

    There's a Soviet science fiction/fantasy novel in which in one chapter the protagonist travels into the literary future -- the future as described by writers. Mostly this is a parody of bad science fiction, of course, but at the beginning there's a society in which orators in togas declaim about how every man has at least three slaves. For a real example (albeit in Russian) of how then-current prejudices date visions of the future see V.F. Odoevsky's 4338. He writes about how in the future families, or rather their butlers, will publish their own newsletters which will replace ordinary correspondence. Sounds awfully like a facebook news feed (accurate in content) but with butlers (the context and form is totally dated.)

    Exercise: what prejudices do we have now that people in 150 years will giggle about? I don't know.

  10. I think the important thing to take away from this is that Facebook ≃ robot butler.

  11. I remember the Babyeaters story having a line like "thats ridiculous, what possible harm could come from non-consensual sex"

    I don't think "It's not rape if you do it in the future" is actually a fair prediction, but they did use a dramatic shift in a fundamental cultural norm to illustrate that it was "the future".