I was enthralled by the title of Chip Brown’s article on designer Marc Newson in this mornings New York Times Magazine: ”The Future Isn’t Futuristic Anymore”. Brown contends that Newson was captivated by the space-age utopia depicted on the Jetsons, but that while his own aesthetic over the years has been influenced by that paradigm, Newson has been disappointed by reality – by the fact of that future not panning out and leaving him feeling that “the future isn’t futuristic anymore.” I struggled over the course of the article to digest this assertion, since it runs seemingly directly contrary to an observation I have made repeatedly over the last decade or so — that the world we live in is, in fact, the world of the Jetsons. Sure, not exactly. We aren’t buzzing around from place to place in our personal little flying capsules, yada yada yada… But a lot of that vision has come true. (See Bob Sassone’s clever little piece on HuffPost Tv from a few years ago titled “So How Accurate Was The Jetsons?“)
What this has led me to note, time and again, is how instrumental we are in shaping the future, and therefore, how much invention and innovation are constrained by the limits of our imagination. With pragmatic and logistic constraints shaping it slightly, the future that we live is the future that we have envisioned in the past, since — not surprisingly — it is those visions that shape the direction of development and research. (And are shaped by the directions of development and research — so it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg thing.) I remember, as a kid, the crazy notion of phones through which one would see the image of the person on the other end of the phone line. Or sci-fi movies in which the individuals powering star vessels, or at the helm of powerful governments, operated not by pushing keys and buttons, but with the swipe of a hand on a screen.
What is more to the point in Newson’s disappointment with the future as it has played out, seems to me less that the future is not the Jetsons, than his own perception that the Jetsons’ universe was a utopia in design. I’m not sure I agree that the world envisioned in the Jetsons was intended to be read as a utopia, but it has been true of modernisms and futurisms for the past century or more, that the artistic vision is generally utopian, and that utopias as played out in reality are generally far from ideal. Newson’s issue with the majority of contemporary design is not that it is not futuristic, but that it often does not involve a whole lot of design. Brown tells us that “what gratifies [Newson] about the success of Apple products … is that it has vindicated the value of design.” While the authoritarian functionality of its business model and products (see …) plays a part in the company’s success, the ubiquitousness of Apple products today must be in no small part due to their seductiveness as exquisitely designed products. Isn’t that, after all, why I really love my iPhone or iMac. I couldn’t tell you for sure if they are better than their competitors. But I derive inexhaustible satisfaction from their beauty. Pragmatism tends to obscure any attachment to what Brown refers to as “the quasi-moral power of design to affirm the social virtues of wit, proportion, elegance and simplicity”. I would agree with Newson that objects are a let down when the maker has failed to create them with an attention to design, to wit, materials and form, and not just to short-sighted ideas of pragmatic and economic expediency. That is, after all, what I intend by “Art Into Life”.