☀ Imagining a better future is easy if you try. But you have to try.
Even the Smithsonian's dreary 'Futures' exhibit, in the end, made visitors more optimistic about tomorrow
There have been few experiences in my life where the gap between expectation and reality was larger and more disappointing than the Smithsonian Institution’s ballyhooed “Futures” exhibition here in Washington. (Easily more disappointing than my first viewing of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.) Billed as a “groundbreaking” museum experience that would “help visitors imagine many possible futures” on the horizon, “Futures” closed in July after a nine-month run. As I wrote after a visit in January, the 32,000 square-foot exhibition’s biggest problem was that its speculations were firmly rooted in 1970’s style eco-pessimism. The plural “Futures” should have been the singular “Future” given that only one unambitious vision of tomorrow was presented.
More from me in a Boston Globe essay:
I expected not only creative displays about the latest stunning discoveries and emerging technologies but some serious speculation about what might be next. What diseases might be cured? Will a spate of fusion reactors help solve climate change? How soon before the earth is ringed with orbital factories and humanity has planted itself permanently on the moon, Mars, and beyond? … [But most] exhibits seem to be about sustainability: a display showing how washing machines could be used to create a “closed wastewater system” for growing a garden of wetland plants; a biodegradable wall of bricks made from mycelium — mushroom fibers, basically; one of the 32 solar panels that President Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof in 1979, later removed during the Reagan administration.
It says something about the mindset of the exhibition’s creators that Elon Musk apparently doesn’t exist in the possible futures of “Futures.” The superentrepeneur behind Tesla and SpaceX didn’t even merit inclusion among the dozens of future-themed quotes painted on the wall of the newly reopened Arts and Industries building. For that matter, neither did CRISPR developers and Nobel laureates Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, mRNA vaccine pioneers Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, or the Apollo 11 crew. But there were quotes from celebrities such as Dolly Parton, Audrey Hepburn, and León “Argentina’s Bob Dylan” Gieco. Also Angela Davis, the notorious 1970s radical and communist.
Who’s excited about a future of biodegradable burials?
Also quite telling: these questions from the exhibition’s interactive “Your Future Guide” meant to provide a customized view of the year 2050:
If I had to dream up some important inventions for humanity’s future, I’m not sure “biodegradable burials that replace headstones with trees” would make my final four. And if I were to identify key problems needing innovative solutions, I might go with abundant clean energy, planetary defense, and curing various forms of dementia before innovations that would help us “relax and slow down to appreciate what we have.”
Oddly, “Futures” was meant to be positive and encouraging. There were no obviously dystopian exhibits showing an overheated world suffering under too many people and too much poverty. If anything, it had a modest solarpunk vibe to it. But overall Futures was too influenced by 1970s-style “limits to growth,” Spaceship Earth, anti-capitalist futurism to present a world of greater abundance and prosperity, along with a civilization pursuing its destiny among the stars. It’s a vision embodied in a display of 1970s buttons messages such as “Recycle or Die,” “Consume Less,” and “Solar Employs, Nuclear Destroys.”
Perhaps a bright vision of the future is an easy sell
And here’s an even stranger thing: “Futures” kind of worked. It seems to have accomplished the Smithsonian’s broad goal of helping “people imagine the future they wanted, not the future they feared.” A survey of attendees found that 83 percent “could imagine a better future” and 80 percent “felt inspired to take action.” What? Visitors found the idea of biodegradable burials and homes made of mushroom bricks to be uplifting and inspiring? Think about it: Living like a Smurf might look pretty good to a person who’s been fed a steady diet of apocalyptic visions by environmentalists and Hollywood. As long as no zombies are clawing their way in, you’re probably good.
In a way, this result is depressing. Before America’s 1970s Down Wing turn in both economic performance and future expectations, serious people envisioned a future where big technological leaps created a tomorrow that seemed science fictional but also achievable. The Atomic Age and Space Age were surely leading to a Golden Age. In May 1968, the Foreign Policy Association put together a conference to examine what 2018 America might look like. The gathering included academics from Harvard and MIT, executives Bell Telephone Laboratories and IBM, and various think-tankers, including Herman Kahn. A year later, the FPA published a book, Toward the Year 2018, based on the conference presentations. The book jacket touted a tomorrow “more amazing than science fiction” including pocket computers, anti-gravity belts, and weather control.
And today's vision? Technological advances might, at best, allow us to keep our current standard of living without totally ruining the planet. It’s like when renewable energy advocates focus more on replacing current power generation with solar and wind rather than planning for a future of vastly more power consumption.
Which leads us to the good news: There’s ample room to tell a truly ambitious and amazing story about a tomorrow of far greater health, wealth, choice, and opportunity — both on and off planet. Imagine if “Futures” has been designed by teams from Apple, SpaceX, and “hard tech” venture capital firms — as well as the creators and writers of “For All Mankind.” There was nothing at “Futures” as bold as this from SpaceX on Mars colonization (indeed very little about space at all):
Also nothing as imaginative as this vision of New World’s Fair from Cameron Wiese:
In this world, you explore the depths of our oceans, take a mission to Mars, and travel back in time to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair recreated in VR. You tour the geothermal plant powering the Fair, see the 3D-printed homes of tomorrow, and watch synthetic organisms decompose the plastic polluting our oceans. You meet the bright minds of tomorrow at the World's Science Competition, watch de-extinct wooly mammoths play, and cheer researchers as they debut the cure for aging. . . . At the end of the night, you catch a ride home in a driverless taxi. With your forehead pressed against the glass, you can't help but feel a renewed sense of wonder. The challenges of our day no longer seem like impossible feats to retreat from, but exciting problems to solve.
One quote the folks who gave us Futures liked was this one from astronomer Carl Sagan: “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.” If so, we need to start encouraging bigger dreams and more sweeping visions. I think we and our children are ready for them.
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