Retrofuturism – The History of Foresight
When we do retrofuturism, looking back at past images and writings of the future, we find much that is artfully creative and imaginative, exploring possible futures. We also find much that is aspirational (visionary) describing various preferable futures. Finally, we find great anticipations (predictions) of probable futures that were clearly seen, even obvious to the futurists or foresighters at the time.
Of course, within probable foresight, we also find many predictions that failed, and we will discuss how to predict better throughout this guide. But first, let’s look at a few examples of predictive success, to get a quick sense of the value that good prediction brings to the world.
Consider this image from a late-1930’s German magazine, anticipating the wireless videophone. See RetroFuture.com and r/RetroFuturism for it and many more. This anticipation was a natural mental leap for its author, as German engineers had recently demonstrated the world’s first public videophone, across 100 miles of coaxial cable between Berlin and Leipzig, in 1936. Contemplating that advance, and turning the devide into a wearable wireless, the artist foresaw the way smartphone users would often be lured to focus on their virtual over physical conversations, seventy years before the iPhone (2007).
There must be tens of thousands of such clear, small insights daily about the nature of our near and long-term future occurring all around us today. The good news is that, unlike the past, we can use digital platforms to collect, teach, critique, and profit from those insights, far easier than ever before. They aren’t ignored and forgotten the way they used to be.
Great predictions can also inspire, guiding people to make them true even many decades later. Consider Vannevar Bush’s Atlantic essay As We May Think (1945), which gave technologists a vision of the visual hypertext world wide web. This essay had deep influence on many future thinkers and builders. Bush’s vision of a global public resource of updatable pages and links was exciting and compelling. His proposed engineering approach of microfiche was impractical, but motivating nonetheless. Once the right technology became possible, it materialized just as predicted. Doug Englebart was one of those whose future vision was lit on fire while reading Bush’s essay. Englebart went on to develop electronic hypertext, the mouse, networked computers, and a graphical user interface, all of which he first displayed simultaneously in what is called the Mother of All Demos (see the YouTube video) in 1968.
Consider also Will Jenkin’s (pen name, Murry Leinster) sci-fi short story, A Logic Named Joe (1946) which described personal computers (called “logics”, an electronic fusion of a typewriter and then-new televisions) and the internet (networks of logics, linked via servers called “tanks”). Leinster foresaw logics in every home, providing communications, entertainment, education, shopping, dating, and many other services. In his world, they had changed human behavior so much that one character notes “logics are civilization.”
After Microsoft was blindsided by the rapid rise of the web in the 1990s, an oversight that culminated in the founding of Google in 1998, Bill Gates is reported to have joked to his team, “find me the person (at Microsoft) who predicted the (very rapid rise of the) web, and we’ll make him CEO.” Yet any good retrofuturist (student of the history of prediction) knows that Jenkins, in 1946, and a steady stream of visionaries after him (Doug Englebart, Ted Gordon, and many others) did exactly that. They saw how big its potential was.
The problem with human culture, until very recently, is that our collective memory for the visionaries who “got to the future first” has been very poor. But with new digital and crowd foresight tools we will discuss later, finding those early accurate visionaries gets better every year. We’re digging the Bush’s and Jenkins out of our historical record, and telling their stories increasingly well. Eventually our culture will lose the damaging and self-limiting bias that “predicting the future doesn’t work.”