The biggest lie about the future is that it’s going to look much different from today.
I mean, The Jetsons and Futurama are one thing, but in near-future portrayals—those shown in goofball blockbusters like I, Robot and Minority Report—the world is given a glossy, high-tech makeover. These futuristic landscapes suggest we’re about to see a bevy of unfathomably large infrastructure investments that will reshape our cities in the next couple decades.
Now take a look outside at your nearest bombed-out road or crumbling bridge. Yeah, your metropolis isn’t going to be turning into Emerald City any time soon.
What’s actually going to happen is already happening now: The future will appear, not in leaps and bounds, but on a moving sidewalk, gliding onward just smoothly enough that it doesn’t shake you into recognition. It’s still going to take decades for California to complete its futuristic high-speed rail line, for example; when it arrives, it’s still going to look like a train.
I’ve been thinking about environmental aesthetics for the past few days, which corresponds with how long I’ve had Fernando Barbella’s Signs from the Near Future open on a browser tab. The Barcelona-based creative director started a Tumblr to investigate how the new technologies we dream of will actually begin to subvert our surroundings—which, in our litigious world, mainly means a planet filled with futuristic warning signs.
“New materials, mashups between living organisms and nanotechnologies, improved capabilities for formerly ‘dumb’ and inanimate things… There a lot of things going on around us!” Barbella wrote me in an email.
“And all these advances can be as exciting as disturbing in a way, at the same time, if we think about it,” he wrote. “The fact is all these things are going to cease being just ‘projects’ to became part of our reality at some point soon.”
We’ve been conditioned to think of the Future, capital F, as something that’s going to arrive with a bang. But of course that’s not true. Pithy sentiments like “every new day is the future” or whatever, the future is ever-arriving and always evolving. No one is going to flip a switch and suddenly fill our streets with hovercars. (That’d be rad though!) But one day you’re going to see an autonomous taxi for the first time and say, “No shit, those are here now? Cool.”
“I was going for that point: many years ago, when we were kids, the visions for the future were at least disconnected from reality: flying cars, strange architecture buildings surrounding us, among other out of its time things,” Barbella said.
“The real thing is that [the] future is always part of the present times, in a way, and that’s why I focused on this approach to a near future where we see these technologies coexisting with us in the most ordinary of environments and places,” he said.
Our difficulty in seeing progress as discrete events makes it harder for us to institute checks and balances along the way. It’s not such an issue for a consumer-facing product like Google Glass; Glass appeared, we all marveled—or scoffed—and now we’re figuring out new social norms as we go along.
But considering future manifestations of power, such perpetual change is harder to grasp. Take full-body scanners at the airport, or location-based government text messages aimed at protestors. Both are very futuristic, concerning things in the abstract, but when actually faced with either, the common response is something more like, “Wait, they can do this now?”
If we don’t accept the future as an endless slog forward, it becomes a lot harder to draw a line in the sand—largely because we’re still waiting for that line to arrive. And as we wait for that line—and for the courts to rule on cases regarding technology that’s already out of date—the framework for the future is constantly being laid around us.
“We will probably never know how worried the people at the top are about the democratization of new technologies, and all the doors and windows and new paths these things are opening for regular Joes like us,” Barbella said. “So we can clearly imagine this near future full of warnings and signs telling us how—or when—to use or not to use these technologies originally designed to improve our lives.”
Barbella said that as the project continues, he hopes to cross it over into the physical world, either with a book or a show, or perhaps by producing signs for real and “start doing some urban interventions.” He also said that, despite his project standing as a reminder that we need to wake up with regards to our progress, he maintains a positive outlook on the world to come.
“The whole responsibility is on us. Not the governments, not the monstrous corporations. They just care about themselves, about being reelected or the bonus they will see at the end of the year,” he wrote.
“We should always be aware that while we waste time on social media, or going after the latest techno toy, there are people who may need our help, and perhaps we can use both the existing and emerging technologies to do it.”