Visit theallusionist.org/future to hear this episode and find out more about it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, strap on a jetpack of language.
Coming up in today’s show: the future is now! But also coming up! How does that work? What an infernal phrase, eh?
On with the show.
ROSE EVELETH: I couldn't say this to most people, but you probably understand getting obsessed with a phrase, where you're like, "What is this thing that we say that is weird?" And the one that I've been obsessed with for a while is "The future is now".
ROSE EVELETH: I tend to use it most ironically, where like you see something dumb with technology and you're like "Oh, the future is now!" "Oh, an Internet-connected toaster - the future is now!"
HZ: “Social network for dogs!”
ROSE EVELETH: Exactly. Right. And other people I think use it much more straightforwardly, and much more non-ironically, which is like, "Oh, things are happening so quickly. The future is upon us. Things are changing really rapidly. The future is always happening right in front of us. Technology is amazing." There are two ways to say "the future is now": you can say it optimistically, you could be like, "the future is now! Isn't that cool?" Or you could be like, "the future is now, and we're totally screwed.”
I have a tweetdeck column that is just for that phrase "the future is now", just to watch what people are saying. "School buses with Wi-Fi. The future is now". The U.S. Forest Service, I think it was, tweeted about a virtual cattle fence, saying “the future is now”.
HZ: “First time capturing a black hole in a photo - the future is now!” “A one-minute salad maker - the future is now!” “Phone with rotating camera - the future is now!”
ROSE EVELETH: Another one is about a guy tweeting about laser weapons being tested I think in Alabama being like the future is now - a lot of them are laser-related, anything involving lasers like the future is now.
HZ: Lasers have been around since 1960, so the 1960s are now.
HZ: “Cheating a fingerprint scanner with silicone fingertip-covers - the future is now!” “Automatic sperm extractor for donors who don’t want to masturbate in a hospital setting - the future is now!”
ROSE EVELETH: "I just paid all my bills while taking a shit. The future is now my people."
It comes up everywhere. There's a song by The Offspring called 'The Future Is Now'. There's a song by Future called 'The Future is Now'.
HZ: Well it's always now for Future himself.
ROSE EVELETH: Exactly. Exactly. It's a double correct phrase for him.
HZ: "When am I? Right now. Right now, always."
ROSE EVELETH: "And now again! And now again."
So it ranges from people who are genuinely marvelling at technology all the way to people who are paying their bills while sitting on the toilet. And so that's the phrase and I'm sort of obsessed with it, in part because it does perform all these different functions or it can be used ironically it can be used sort of sincerely it could be used in all these different ways and I say it all the time because I think it's really funny.
HZ: Going back to the past for a moment, it’s hard to identify exactly where and when the phrase originated.
ROSE EVELETH: On the sports side there is a football coach who claims to have invented the phrase. His name is George Allen. In 1989 he did an interview with USA Today, he was talking about how long it was going to take for his team, which was Long Beach State football team, to be ready to play and he says, quote, "By my third year we should be competitive. But that's a long time to wait, because I'm the guy who coined the phrase 'The Future Is Now'."
HZ: Weird flex.
ROSE EVELETH: Yeah it is weird. I mean, he's a football coach. I think they all have weird flexes, that's part of the game.
HZ: George Allen probably wasn’t the one to invent the phrase, unless some fifty years prior to making this claim, he posed as someone named Earnest M. Ligon and wrote a book, published in 1940, titled Their Future is Now: the Growth and Development of Christian Personality.
ROSE EVELETH: It's not really about technology, it's not really about the future; but he uses this phrase in the intro to the book where he says, "Parents look upon their children and dream of their future. What they so often fail to realize is that their future is now." And so that's a really early example. I haven't found that many examples of it before that 1940 book, but I suspect it probably was used before then. There's a 1955 short documentary called The Future Is Now, where it is really being used in the way that we're talking about in terms of technology. It's actually really amazing. It shows like scientists working in their labs and developing computers and the atomic bomb and all this stuff.
HZ: Classic scientists.
CLIP: The Future Is Now
“A new language has come into currency. To the public, it is a language of the future. To a scientist, a language of the present. This, then, is a report on our present future, some of it profound, some of it mere gadgetry.”
ROSE EVELETH: And that's kind of an early use. In 1957, the University of Michigan releases a report called ‘The Future Is Now’ about the University of Michigan. So that's around when you start to see it pop up more and more.
HZ: Why do you reckon that was?
ROSE EVELETH: The 1950s and 1960s are a golden age of science fiction. You start to get very specific images of what the future is going to look like. And there is a lot of "oh everything's gonna be so cool and we're gonna have flying cars" and you have all of these companies putting out these promotional videos. In 1956 'Design for Dreaming', which is a General Motors advertisement, comes out, which if you have not seen I actually highly recommend watching because it is so weird and so interesting. It's also a musical. And there's a woman, and she's singing -
CLIP: Design for Dreaming
MAN: And now, a glamorous dancer and a special number, ‘Dance of Tomorrow’.
DANCER: Everyone says/The future is strange/but I have a feeling/some things won’t change.
ROSE EVELETH: And then she's whisked away in a dream to this big car show, and there's a moment where she faints because she's so excited about all the cars and she's whisked back into the kitchen, because that's where she belongs;
CLIP: Design for Dreaming
DANCER: The kitchen of tomorrow is calling me! My cake is ready.
ROSE EVELETH: So there's a lot of things going on in this musical advertisement for General Motors. But you have all of these ideas. A lot of the stuff that we think of now when we think about retro futurism, like all of those classic images of flying cars in these cities and that kind of aesthetic, all come from the 50s and early 60s. I think that's why the phrase takes off, because there's this idea that, "Oh, now that we're out of the war, we can just really commit to being as inventive as possible and all this innovation is going to accelerate." And that has continued to this day, this idea that innovation is accelerating really rapidly, everything is changing really quickly, we have all this innovation, it's constantly on top of us, we can't even get used to all the progress that’s happening, because it’s happening so quickly. And that is what feeds into this idea of the future is now.
HZ: And was that when the phrase got more attached to technology than to, say, Christianity or other things?
ROSE EVELETH: There are some variations on the phrase. “Their future is now”, “our future is now”, “your future is now”. Those get used in the 1940s and early 50s, more on the self-help side of things or the Christian side of things. And then in the mid-1950s you start to see it used for technology. And then since then, that's really been the main way that it's used, on the tech side of things - forgetting the sports angle for a bit. So yeah, I think part of that is the infiltration of technology and this idea of progress and technology as ubiquitous and also as inherently American. And that's where it really takes off, in the US at least.
HZ: It's funny that the notion of flying car is still, decades later, one we can be using to indicate an amazing future.
ROSE EVELETH: Right. And we're not really that much closer to a flying car. I mean it is funny because there is the flip side of the phrase "The future is now" is that thing that people complain about where they'll say "where's my jetpack?" Or "where's my flying car?" This idea that the future is often presented as this amazing place full of things like flying cars and jet packs and stuff like that; the future we got is not necessarily what that 1950s future was promising us. So I think you're seeing it more ironically now than you did in the past or people, where more and more people are saying things like "I'm paying my bills while on the toilet, the future is now" as opposed to saying with this wide-eyed enthusiasm like "Wow, look at what's happening!" There is still obviously that, but I think that the biggest change I've seen is it just being used more ironically or being used more as like a parody, almost to really mean, "I wanted a jetpack and I got paying bills on the toilet." The things that we thought the future was gonna deliver didn't kind of pan out.
HZ: Do you think the way that people talk about the future has shifted? Because in the 1960s it might be really shiny, and now it's often dystopian. Arid Earth and us being brains in jars with robot overlords.
ROSE EVELETH: Yeah, totally! The way that we talk about the future definitely changes over time. Lots of people have written about how the science fiction that an era produces is more reflective of that time than of the future. For a while, you get fear of like nuclear war during during certain times, and now we're getting fear I think reflected in like climate change and people are worried about the end of the world on that side of things. You're seeing people think about the future as a different kind of place depending on where you are and what time period you're in. It hasn't always been the case that humans have thought the future would be different than the present. For large swathes of human history, what you experience in your generation is basically the same as what your parents experienced and what your kids will experience: the way you live and the things that happen aren't that different across generations. So for a long time this idea of the future as being inherently different and this separate strange unpredictable place wasn't true. For a lot of human history, you woke up, you hunted and gathered, you went to sleep; not that much change. You didn't move around that much; nations did not rise and fall; there were lots of things that just were the same.
HZ: Or if nations did rise and fall, you might just not have known about it.
ROSE EVELETH: Right, exactly, right. And so there's actually kind of a debate within history about when the future becomes a thing that we think about as different, fundamentally and inherently different from today. Some people think that that happened in the Victorian era, when you had the Industrial Revolution and you had people really truly moving from a small scale community, more agrarian, into big cities. And that's really where you start to see the rise of like a fear of the future and a fear of change and this idea that things moving too quickly is bad and that it might hurt us.
There were people who thought that trains actually moved too quickly and would hurt the human body, because we were moving too quickly through space, like this idea that speed is actually terrifying and horrible and scary. Which I think then leads us into future shock, this idea that progress is happening so quickly that we can't keep up and we're all freaking out all the time. And that’s why I think “The future is now” is an interesting phrase, because it solidifies this idea that when we talk about the future, when we're using that phrase, we're really talking about a pretty short-scale thing, but that is predicated on change. That "The future is now" means that it's happening right now and it's changing quickly.
HZ: Every time you say it, if you believe in linear time, it is technically true that the future is now, by the time you got to the end of the sentence.
ROSE EVELETH: Correct. Yeah, yeah.
HZ: One problem I have with the phrase, which is probably that I'm just thinking about it too literally, is that it's a contradiction in terms. And if it's now, then it can't be the future.
ROSE EVELETH: Yeah, right. Isn't that like the joke? You thought you had time to adapt and get ready but you don't, old man!
HZ: It's a joke, ish. It's just not a top quality joke.
ROSE EVELETH: But it does reflect a certain amount of hubris, right? I get what you're getting at, this idea that this doesn't even really make sense to say, but it is used as a way to be like, "We're so powerful! The future is now!" When in fact that doesn't make any sense.
HZ: Do you think it makes people feel comforted to behave like they can describe the future?
ROSE EVELETH: Absolutely.
HZ: So is that why some people say “The future is now”? "The future is now. I can handle it. Look at me handling it. This is it. Nothing more is going to happen."
ROSE EVELETH: I think it's more like "The future is now, and like look how great the future is. It's all gonna be OK. We're all gonna be fine, because there are smart people who are committed to solving these problems - and look, they've invented a digital cow fence. We're all going to be fine, because there are smart people on the case." I think is like more what that tends to signify to me, like it's handled and we don't have to worry; nothing more is going to happen. But yeah, I think it's a similar feeling of if the future is now, I can understand what's happening now; if the future is some tomorrow that I can't actually see and touch, then it's scarier. I just want to fondle the future.
HZ: Rose Eveleth fondles the future in her podcast Flash Forward, about our possible futures - find it at flashforwardpod.com and at the podplaces. She also writes for Wired and Motherboard. And coming up in today’s Minillusionist, she shares what she’s been learning about the futurist movement.
HZ: I just looked up futurism and it says, “An artistic movement that arose in Italy in 1909 to replace traditional aesthetic values with the characteristics of the machine age.” So it is interesting that 'future' is so often associated with machinery.
ROSE EVELETH: Right. The Italian futurists were an art movement that really embraced disruption and movement and speed. They're obsessed with airplanes and they really valued youth over experience and this idea of disruption which drove any of this sounds familiar to you in terms of what's happening right now. But this was like 1918-ish, and they put out this manifesto which is amazing. I don’t know if you've ever read the Italian futurist manifesto, but it is incredible. It is written by a poet who has a flair for language. This version of futurism was driven by these artists in Italy, and they were fascists and loved fascism, just really loved it.
HZ: It was the style of the time.
ROSE EVELETH: Yeah. And this idea that like progress at any cost. They really were super stoked about the bombing of Tripoli because it was the first air bombing in history and so to them that was an incredible innovation and the fact that you were also just bombing the shit out of people didn't really matter to them. And you see people similarly praising drones because they're really amazing innovations when they're being used to kill civilians. Today's technologists should probably take a page or maybe take a lesson from the way that Italian futurism turned into fascism because it's a slippery slope in terms of being like yeah innovation is a pure good and we should do we should make sure that nothing stops invention and this idea of disruption as a natural and important and very good thing. So there are very clear parallels between the two and the earlier one led directly to fascism. So maybe we should think about this a little more deeply.
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