Victorian Visions of the Future Say a lot about the Power of our Assumptions
When we imagine the future, it’s interesting how much we base our thinking on assumptions of our present. A great example of this comes from a series of postcards made from 1899 to 1910, when the artist Jean-Marc Côté (and others), were commissioned to paint a series of visions of the future as decoration for packaging.
Across dozens of small, but lavishly ornate cards, Jean-Marc Côté imagined France in the Year 2000 (En L'An 2000). The only complete set was discovered and published with a commentary in the 1980s by the renown science fiction writer Issac Asimov into a book called “Future Days: A Nineteenth-century Vision of the Year 2000.”
Looking at a sample of the cards, there is clearly a tension between trying to peer into the future, while assuming inherent behaviours of the present.
There is a common theme with the barber, architect, maid and farmer, where each role essentially becomes a control operation for a set of tools. Each of these is essentially just a robotic version or extension of human capability. For example, the maid uses a machine to sweep and pick up dirt from the floor - contrast this with the modern vacuum cleaner, which uses a completely different means - suction - to clean. Especially robotic vacuum cleaners which automate the whole operation. In each case, the artists assume that machines can’t have their own embedded intelligence. In contrast, our modern world attempts to do the opposite - to take the smarts out of people and put it the machine.
When we think about the assumptions being embedded in the visions of the future, what might have seemed wild at the time seems firmly entrenched in a Victorian world view. Though the concepts are meant to portray the world in the year 2000, each of the concepts includes clothing, hairstyles and appearances from the late 1800s to early 1900s. It’s as if the technology was expected to advance, but every other facet of society was meant to stay the same, including lifestyle, gender roles, social, economic and political forces. The same people are in power (men) and the same people are doing the cleaning work (women).
The fact that these future-facing artists load their visions with many assumptions based on their everyday life says a lot about the deeper cognitive processes at play. Psychological research over the past few years has indicated that our forward projection of our personal future (episodic) experiences is likely underpinned by the same neural regions that are involved in remembering the past.
In fact, these future projecting mechanisms may be so heavily anchored in memory that people with poor memories of the past have trouble projecting themselves into the future. This type of pre-rehearsal of events that have not yet happened may be a key part of our evolved ability to think about our own personal future.
Furthermore, our ability to project forward, at least in our own lives, may be heavily skewed by cultural narratives that provide shortcuts for what we might be doing in the future and how we might be doing it. The further forward we go in time, the more we might be relying on these pre-packaged ideas.
Crucially, though much of the research on ‘episodic future thinking’ focuses on personalised episodic memory, research suggests we may use the same mechanisms of memory and forward projection in creating more general purpose (semantic) narratives about the future. Work with an amnesic patient (known as KC) indicates how challenges with memory make it difficult to generate non-personal fictional narratives of the future.
Could the projection and remixing of our own episodic and semantic memories be the engine of future oriented thinking? Perhaps the psychological evidence is no surprise as it’s a common suggestion in art that our creativity comes from a remixing of what we already know today.
Nearly forty years before the artists were documenting their concepts, one of the most notable Victorian visionaries, Jules Verne, started publishing a series of books that pushed to the edge of the known. In “Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea," Verne imagined a submarine that rivalled anything available at the time. In fact, it took years for the first even remotely equivalent submarine to appear.
Interestingly, it is one of Verne’s earliest unpublished works, “Paris in the Twentieth Century” that is the most startling in its eerily accurate future vision. In it, Verne imagines Paris in 1960, nearly 100 years into his future. Verne’s publisher, Hetzel, believed the books lack of believability would harm Verne’s commercial prospects off the back of his success with his first book, “Five Weeks in a Balloon," so the work was shelved and not published until 1994 when it was discovered by accident.
Uncannily accurate to our own time, Verne’s missing manuscript,”Paris in the Twentieth Century” describes a dystopian society that cares only for business and technology. Lovers of art and culture have fallen by the wayside. The main character, Michel, a young poet, drifts through a society that has no place for him or his romantic cultural interests anymore.
Technologies described in the book include: cars powered by internal combustion engines, magnetic trains, skyscrapers, electric lights, ‘picture-telegraphs,’ elevators, wind power, security systems, remote control weapons, mass education, department stores, recorded music and more. So many of these might seem fantastical in the way they are recorded in Verne’s work, but the seeds of so many of these technologies were appearing in cutting-edge scientific research of the time.
In Verne’s work, the anachronistic ideas of the time leak through. His characters, ideas and tastes were unabashedly Victorian. In his own words he insisted that rather than projecting into the future, he was trying to anchor his ideas in the present. In an interview with Jules Verne by Marie A. Belloc, published in the Strand Magazine in 1895, Jules Verne insisted:
“I have always tried to make even the wildest of my romances as realistic and true to life as possible.” (From ‘Jules Verne at Home’)
In the same interview, when reminded how many of his ideas had come true, he goes on to respond:
“‘Tut, tut,’ cried M. Verne, deprecatingly, ‘that is mere coincidence, and is doubtless owing to the fact that even when inventing scientific phenomena I always try to make everything seem as true and simple as possible. As to the accuracy of my descriptions, I owe that in a great measure to the fact that, even before I began writing stories, I always took numerous notes out of every book, newspaper, magazine or scientific report I came across.” (From: ‘Jules Verne at Home’)
There is a fascinating insight here. It was likely that through his deep research Verne was able to project forward, not to where technology and society was, but to where they would go. More crucially, in his unpublished work, he seems to better describe how technology and society go hand-in-hand, each influencing and being influenced by the other.
If our imagination for the future is anchored in our memories of the past and our understanding of the present, then perhaps we are forever unable to escape the assumptions of our time. Yes, we have the ability to imagine many possible futures, some of which may turn out accurately, even if it is only by chance against the backdrop of many such predictions made my many people.
In the end, what may give us the most interesting, accurate and rich pictures of the future may not be our ability to throw away all our assumptions and start with some sort of blank slate. Instead, we may gain interesting insights by understanding the assumptions of the past and present, and near future with the intention of projecting forward to understand how current behaviour might evolve and change over time. It is out of these seeds that many possible and interesting futures will emerge.
Beck, Julie (2017) Imagining the Future Is Just Another Form of Memory. Humans’ ability to predict the future is all thanks to our ability to remember the past. Retrieved September 2019 from The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/imagining-the-future-is-just-another-form-of-memory/542832/
Hill, David J. (2012) 19th Century French Artists Predicted The World Of The Future In This Series Of Postcards. Retrieved September 2019 from Singularity Hub, https://singularityhub.com/2012/10/15/19th-century-french-artists-predicted-the-world-of-the-future-in-this-series-of-postcards/
Novak, Matt (2010) Jean-Marc Côté's Visions of the Year 2000 (1899) Retrieved September 2019, from https://paleofuture.com/blog/2010/5/2/jean-marc-cotes-visions-of-the-year-2000-1899.html
Rosenbaum, R.S., Gilboa, A., Levine, B., Winocur, G., and Moscovitch, M. (2009). Amnesia as an impairment of detail generation and binding: evidence from personal, fictional, and semantic narratives in K.C. Neuropsychologia, Volume 47, p. 2181–2187.
Schacter Daniel L, Benoit, Roland G and Szpunar, Karl K (2017) Episodic Future Thought: Remembering the Past to Imagine the Future. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Volume 17, p. 41–50
Wikipedia. Paris in the Twentieth Century. Retrieved Septebmer 2019, from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_in_the_Twentieth_Century
Wikipedia. Paris in the Year 2000. Retrieved September 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/En_L'An_2000
Wikipedia. Jules Verne. Retrieved September 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jules_Verne
Cover Picture Public Domain, having been produced between 1899 and 1910.