Retrofuturism Paul Kirkham Arts & Culture, Politics & Economics, Science & Medicine It is very difficult to predict the future—if it was easy the list of the extremely nouveau riche would be headed by clairvoyants rather than entrepreneurs. But some things look remarkably prescient: those flip phones we all had—we first saw them in Star Trek didn’t we? The sat nav screen—Goldfinger, if I remember rightly. Of course that isn’t how it happened. Those objects were designed to look like that—life imitating art and it’s very clever marketing—totally new products but we’ve already bought into them. Another that looks similar at first glance is the jetpack, a commercially available model should be with us next year realising the dream of David Mayman, CEO at JetPack Aviation: “A lot of us spent time in our youth fantasising about what it would be like to follow Buck Rogers up into the air with our very own jetpacks.” But this is different from the sat nav or the cellphone —apart from destroying the mid-life crisis routines of many an angst-ridden comedian is there any demand beyond wish-fulfilment? It’s going to be a niche market, a good deal smaller than the Segway. Perhaps a 21st century outlaw intercepting all those airborne drone deliveries. No, what we have here is the result of a phenomenon called retrofuturism, hitherto largely confined to fiction. Stick with me because it’s all going to get a bit Donald Rumsfeld. All of us, even clairvoyants and science fiction writers, base our predictions on the past; that’s all we have. We live in what the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, in a striking phrase, described as a ‘remembered present’. If we imagine the future from our ‘remembered present’, those memories also contain their own visions. Steampunk is perhaps the best example—imagine a world inhabited by the technology predicted by the likes of Jules Verne. It’s a nostalgia for a promised future that never came to pass. And if you are extremely rich and powerful you can make your dreams come true. There’s no wonder that Roman Abramovich has a yacht with a two helicopter pads and a mini submarine—he’s channelling a Bond villain. But we have to ask ourselves whether there wasn’t a very good reason why this future never arrived on its own; why the will and the drive at the time never matched the vision. Firstly it’s important to remember the fiction element of many of these futures is usually stronger than the science—they were always primarily entertainment. The Time Machine, Capricorn One, The Matrix are closer to The Wizard of Oz than A Brief History of Time. Secondly, in the non-fiction world innovations happen when need and opportunity come together. Maybe it wasn’t just that the technology wasn’t there—maybe there was no real demand. It’s all very well thinking outside of the box but most of the time innovations have to fit back into the mundane context of cost benefit analyses— regulations, due diligence, health and safety, public liability insurance. It is all very well having vision but that vision must be relevant to the present not the past. Those remembered futures were formed in a very different context. Never mind that your phone and satnav (now combined in one device) far outperform their ‘inspiration’. Think back to early James Bond films (which were, let’s not forget, always touted as fiction) the McGuffins, secret islands, attaché cases with encryption machines etc are no longer relevant. Who needs a jetpack or an autogyro when you have a Predator drone! Entrepreneurs, according to J A Schumpeter, make the future by taking little regard of the past—through creative destruction. And yet it turns out that they are little better at actually predicting the future in any detail than the rest of us—the ipad rests on a heap of failures (that, incidentally is why it works so well) and if Mark Zuckerberg really foresaw Facebook’s dominance he would have sorted out the I.P. much earlier. But having achieved riches beyond imagination some entrepreneurs have gone into the prediction game big-time. Driverless cars have been just the start: asteroid mining; manned missions to Mars; defeating all diseases known to man—you can’t fault the ambition. So why do they do this? The short reason is the same as Caligula making his horse a consul—because they can. They have the money and the will to make dreams reality: ‘Make it so’ says Jean-Luc Picard the captain of the Enterprise. It will be interesting to see how all this pans out because what we know of the future is that it is highly contingent and rarely turns out exactly as planned. Entrepreneurs of all people should know this. More importantly we must be aware if the vision originates in a world that is no longer there. This is brought into sharp focus by President Obama’s recent announcement: “We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.” Deliberately reminiscent of JFK in 1960 but made in a very different context both politically and technologically. The 60s were a very different place—the key driver was the Cold War and the key technologies were just being invented. As is often remarked the processing power of your cellphone far exceeds that of the Apollo onboard computers. It’s not really a valid comparison, you can’t weigh the Wright Brothers’ Flyer against an F16. But the point is that as with the jetpack you don’t need a human to push all of the buttons any more. The relative competencies of humans, robots and computers have altered. Humans are soft and squidgy and it requires an enormous effort to keep them alive in space. Robots on the other hand are far more reliable, very easy to keep going—you can switch them off when they’re not needed. That’s what we have seen recently with the European Space Agency’s Rosetta space mission. There were minor disappointments to be sure, the Philae lander was unable to operate to its full potential but this was largely because it had to land on an object whose very shape was quite unknown to its designers. That is just one measure of the scale of the discoveries, never mind the achievement of navigating a craft for ten years on a journey of 4 billion miles to rendezvous with an object less than 3 miles across. Of course this doesn’t come cheap but most would consider the knowledge gained, which will keep researchers busy for years, well worth the cost—the equivalent of four Airbus 380 airliners. But that’s nothing to what it would cost to send a manned mission. And the fact is that unlike Matt Damon in The Martian robots are expendable. Why the emphasis on the incredibly indulgent project of putting humans on Mars? It’s going to be very expensive indeed; has anyone considered the lawyers’ fees for drawing up the Terms and Conditions. I would suggest the fixation is linked to retrofuturism, not only a nostalgia for an unrealised future but also a feeling of guilt, tinged with a vague mounting shame as a series of landmark fictions have passed by—Space 1999, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But a cold hard look at the facts suggests that sending robots would be far more effective—almost a lean start-up approach. And if that sounds too mechanical, lacking emotional involvement, just look at the faces of the Rosetta team as their plucky little anthropomorphised space craft gently crashed into the comet at the end of the mission, recording data and taking pictures to the very moment it switched off—’the rest is silence’. That’s the romance, and drama, of science. Featured image courtesy of Alex Jahnke on Flickr.