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Back To The Future

If we want a brighter future we need to make it look more exciting

“We’re living in the future.” I imagine many of you have heard this refrain before. The future that the speculative fiction writers of yore anticipated so eagerly is finally here. In some cases, it’s already passed us by. Back to the Future: Part II showed us a possible 2015, a year that passed nearly a decade ago (and with that, a new grey hair springs forth). And yet, one might notice a key difference between the future that is now and the future of Back to the Future: namely, that the future we live in not only kind of stinks, but also looks pretty hideous. 

But why is it so terrible? Why are we so much closer to the dystopian imaginings of someone like Willliam Gibson than the idyllic world of Star Trek? In answering that question, I believe that not only can we better understand the all-encompassing despair many feel towards the state of the world, but we can also start to imagine something better. And it’s only once we’re capable of imagining something better that we can start to fight for it.

To first answer why the present looks, and is, so rubbish, it’s important to highlight an issue that I do not see discussed enough: the slow rollback of our ability to own things. Renting is increasingly becoming the norm for housing, as fewer and fewer people are capable of affording home ownership (which is to say nothing of firms like BlackRock buying up the available housing supply). If that wasn’t enough, streaming services are dominating the entertainment industry, leading to a crisis in media preservation as physical media continues to disappear. We live in the age of rent and subscription, and it blows. 

This has culminated in one of the most boring and obnoxious trends in all of art and design: minimalism. Apartments and homes are standardised into generic, dull spaces to be let at exorbitant rates. Streaming services moronically compress their names into pithy single words (looking at you, Max) and utterly butcher their interfaces to look sleek and modern at the cost of functionality. Everything is now standardised, given to you bundled, and charged per month. And it can all be taken away at the drop of a hat. 

So how do we fix this? How do we stop everything from looking like robo-b*llocks, Apple Store sh*te?  I would argue the answer can be found in the past, in the aesthetic of excess that is 1970s maximalism. We should drown the minimalist scourge in a deluge of vibrant paints, bury it under zany wallpaper and colourful carpets, and torment it with a plethora of tedious trinkets. The only antidote to a creeping complacency in design is to turn every space possible into the design equivalent of the word ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. 

Let’s not stop there! Cars, trains, buses, and every other aspect of our day-to-day commute should be eye-catching and fun. Manufacture cars that look like the cars of the 70s and 80s — but with 21st-century technology inside them. Have office buildings look like they did decades ago — with some modern desktop workstations mixed in. To quote The Six Million Dollar Man, “we have the technology.” The best of the past plus the best of the present equals the most beautiful possible future. 

In the age of rentier capitalism, all of this will be extremely challenging. Minimalism is a constant in our lives literally by design, and thus it is only through political change that we can achieve aesthetic revolution. The fight for government intervention in the out-of-control housing market, greater media preservation legislation, and (my favourite thing of all) ensuring our cities have decent public transit is vitally important. Retrofuturist utopias do not emerge from looks alone. 

And this, I hope, ties into something I’ve been able to convey over the course of my time writing for The Saint: everything is political. From Labour flip-flopping to maximalism, we live in an unavoidably political world. And it’s on us to fix it. A better, more beautiful world is possible, but only if we fight to make it so.

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