What do we want the future to look like?
Many say that the 2020s were predicted in science fiction from authors such as Bruce Sterling and Octavia Butler. A bleak world-order riddled with racism, environmental degradation, corporate power, and political unrest, parts which have come to fruition. One that has exhausted its use and needs to be put to rest. Sterling and Butlers accurate predictions, written in 1988 and 1933, proves that science fiction literature and film has the influence on the public imagination to drive the futures we desire. The foundation of Utopia, meaning no place — coined by Thomas More in 1518, wasn’t extremely far off from parts of our world in the 1900s-2020s. These being, men as the protagonists and hubs of power and control, or in the book Utopia, a king. Thomas More promoted the idea that a perfect society is one of uniformity, inherently perpetuating themes of racism, as his imagined New London was all identically the same. The 54 cities have the same laws, race, sexual orientation, customs, institutions, and language. His uniform culture being one that is able-bodied, English and white. The main character, Hythloday makes this theme apparent when he says, “If you know one of their cities, you know them all, so similar are they in all respects (so far as the terrain allows). And so I will describe one of them, it doesn’t much matter which one (More, 56).” Within nature, ecosystem biodiversity is the foundation of life, and sharing differences results in mutual flourishing. “As ecosystems evolve in nature, they become more diverse. This diversity creates more resources (not less) in a system. This is because diverse plants and species need different nutrients to thrive, and they each generate abundant resources that they can share. They soon realize that they can gain what they need by creating cooperative relationships. Instead of drawing all their resources from the soil, they start exchanging resources with other species or plants. This shift from competitive to cooperative relationships creates the conditions for a system based on abundance,” says Kathleen Allen, an Environmentalist.
Dystopias are dangerous narratives that are injected into public consciousness unknowingly that perpetuate toxic worldviews and values. Diverse representation depicting reality is just that much more important. Creating scenarios that are better than the day before, or Protopia, are an alternative for imagining futures that are not Utopia or Dystopia. According to The Technium, “Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. A Protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.” There are endless possibilities of how human civilization collapses, but proposing one with radical inclusivity, symbiosis with nature and technology for good — well, that is much more difficult. Protopian visions have to account for new or modified systems checks and balances, regeneration, and equity. It’s difficult to shed the patriarchy when the stories about the future are the same thing but in a different way. But notable authors Robin Wall Kimmerer and Donna Haraway offer counter arguments that are decolonized and have symbiotic futures. The the term “Decolonization” in this context is meaning the pursuit of liberation, institutional domination over people and the natural world.
When crafting a just collective future, it’s necessary to be intentional about all choices. As Nicholas Nelson describes, “An aesthetic is not just a visual look of something. It runs much deeper. It involves all your senses and is how you experience the world. It’s the totality of all interactions, all experiences. Past, present future. Aesthetics show us small tangible clues to a deeper larger meaning.” Aesthetics is also who is shown in these futures and what their roles in society should be. Representation of — or absence of — race, sexual orientation, and gender are interwoven into the problematic narratives of science fiction.
There has been a linear evolution of science fiction and future oriented visuals as far back as 1726, when Gulliver’s Travels was published. But scifi is a tool for imagining different worlds other than the present — ones that could be tangential, near or distant. Aesthetics are often a reflection of the social and political issues of the time. While there is no set manifesto for the design elements of science fiction, there is definitely a trend to the costumes, architecture and graphic design elements. Moving away from aesthetic movements of Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Retro Futurism and Vaporwave, to incorporating bits of Surrealism and this new unnamed future aesthetic that is emerging in the late 2000s. Futurism now is crisp, biomimic yet corporate, ambient, and seductive. This is a result of Apple pioneering what mainstream high end technology looks like.
The artifacts of the future in our near present, take concept cars, and products, graphic design, are often heavily influenced by the narratives in film and literature. For example, the Mercedes Vision AVTR autonomous concept car takes its aesthetic from the 2009 film Avatar. Similarly to other automakers, Mercedes had sustainability in mind. It’s reported that the concept car is theoretically powered by graphene-based organic battery cells that don’t require rare earth minerals, which the company says may one day be compostable, and the interior is made from recycled plastics and vegan leather. The vehicle is equip with “bionic like flaps” that are used to signal to other vehicles. The Mercedes Vision AVTR has other unusual capabilities — it can move sideways and diagonally, vibrate along with the pace of your breathing and heart rate. But all that being said, with an artificial goal of merging humans and machines, the AVTR only touches the surface. The industrial designers seem to have a shallow understanding of natures complex systems. We can draw far more inspiration than just forms and colors from nature when it comes to automotive design, take indigenous architecture for example. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, tell us stories of how indigenous people understand the creation of form incorporates regenerative whole life cycle thinking. From building on ancestral knowledge and fine tuning craft, they have created their built environment that works in harmony with the local environment.
Contrasting with the monochromatic milled aluminum Apple products, there is a subculture aesthetic that I’ve called Soft Futures. These are ones that evoke emotions of calmness through the use of warm colors and materials. Lucy McRae, a science fiction Body Architect, is at the forefront of this movement. She creates artworks that utilize synthetic materials: producing materials from our bodies and biomaterials. A reduction of metal, wood and the abolishment of plastic. In her world we aren’t extracting natural materials anymore.
The Zeitgesit posters are a graphic design style analogous with the new wave of visual futurism, pioneered by contemporary designers Lena Manger and Annika Soja. This aesthetic is called Acid Graphics, with roots in the music industry, specifically the album covers, nightclub and rave posters. The style utilizes 3D model and rendering softwares to create uncanny realistic forms, often in chrome material. Examples of these styles can be viewed at the Instagram accounts @digital_archive and @acidgraphix. According to Eye on Design, “Acid Graphics can be characterized by the by a miasma of bright colors (there’s a hell of a lot of neon green); experimental typography (it’s warped, back to front, upside down, takes on the appearance of viscously dripping liquid metal); op-art-esque patterns; sci-fi futurism; and the odd ’70s throwback.”
The craze of fluorescent neon lighting has proliferated into the art and film industry to depict ‘otherworldliness’ or ‘alien’. For a James Turrell installation, when immersed in its presence it has the power to distort space and time, maybe going as far to say it transports the viewer to the inside of a breathing cloud. When entering, the enveloping hypnotic light greets your gaze, sending off synapses in the brain. Notable artists such as Dan Flavin, Iván Navarro and Leila Pazooki have been experimenting with the medium for years as it’s luminous glow is “like entering a space-age dream”.
Neon art and lighting may have originated around the 1930s, but it was alive and well in in 2014, but in an unexpected way. The simutanous use of pink, purple and blue lighting was classified as bisexual lighting. “The term describes the recent phenomenon where bisexual artists and characters in music and film are bathed in a delicious pink, purple and blue light — the colours of the bisexual pride flag.” Danielle Mustarde, of Diva Mag states. Call it a coincidence, but in 2018 the Pantone Color Institution named Ultra Violet as its color of the year. In Brave New World (2020), bisexual lighting was often used in the nightclub scenes. This is just one of many examples of how film imitates life, and vice versa.
How can we talk about neon lights without talking about the synonymous microgenre, Vaporwave. Similar offshoots of Vaporwave proliferated on Tumblr were Seapunk, Chillwave, Hardvapour. When thinking of future facing visual styles in the mid 2000s Vaporwave was, and often still is, the default. It began as a microgenre of electronic music and transformed into an internet meme and visual culture. It’s associated with the tropical glitch art style, holographics, 3D renderings and ombre. Vaporwave and the parallel styles might be aesthetically pleasing but it can be tied back to the point about forced singular uniformity. One collective imagination of how the future should look, just won’t do.
Start- up companies such as Apple and Google have similar visual elements that have been emulated in films such as, The Circle. “A controlled aesthetic of the digital future, connection, harmony, balance, and what people globally recognise as beauty, there is truth in beauty. All in this one little device.” This non-branding style branding has also infiltrated the other facets of the packing industry as well. Companies like Brandless, Glossier, Public Goods and Muji. But, as many things, not having branding was done previously. Generic labeled consumer products were common in the 1980s and were characterized by the white packaging, bold black letters, and lower quality due to decreased prices.
In film and in the art and design space, a burnt orange chalky color is often used to be reminiscent of an out of world experience. The use of color is a powerful communication tool to drive emotion, perception and action. The human quest for space exploration and colonization has occurred since the 1900s and so it’s important to recognized that this is yet another problematic visual theme that is carried into a new generation. Which leads to the question, when will our futuristic visuals be abundantly full of luscious green life instead of grey concrete or lifeless sienna?
The year 2017 was a time when Afrofuturism, a philosophy of African diaspora and technology, was picking back up. A time to reclaim the abscence of diverity in scifi. But at this time there were two parallel worlds occurring: one which is the powerful movie Black Panther (2018), and the other, Black Mirror (2017). As an article from Vice News puts it, “Black Mirror is obsessed with black suffering.” Merely a year a part, but, Black Mirror’s Black Museum (S4 EP 6) episode completely missed the mark. A woman named Nish enters the Black Museum, where the proprietor tells his stories relating to the artifacts on display, but it’s really about triggering mental incarceration.
This problem even extends to the 2020 version of Brave New World that has cast black members, but not one of them are the main characters (those being Lenina Crowne, Bernard Marx, Elliot and John Savage). Three white men and a white woman. While the most powerful position in the show, the World Controller of Eastern Europe Mustafa Mond, played by Nina Sonsanya, only have brief scenes.
The lack of diversity in science fiction amongst black individuals is highlighted here, but this also extends to a wide variety of minorities.
Trendsetting is too often confined to fashion, but looking beyond the surface, it has the outstanding capability for behavioral change and plural futures, leading to social impact. It acts as a series of falling dominos — some behaviors transition to newly accepted social norms. Diverse visual and narrative representation in science fiction matters.