I have always been fascinated by visions of the world of tomorrow. Whether it’s the retro-futuristic ideal of moon bases and people in spacesuits shooting aliens with ray guns, or a grim, neon-purple perpetual midnight. The way we envisage our collective future says a lot about us as a species, and about the cultural zeitgeist of the day. Here, I want to talk about two of the big envisioned models of the future: The Tomorrowland utopia model and the Cyberpunk dystopia model.
Tomorrowland was a prototype city of the future pioneered by Walt Disney and his Imagineers, but it wasn’t just a Disney idea. From the late 40s to the 60s, the world had a fascination with the possibilities of the future. Programmes like Thunderbirds or companies like General Motors touted the world of tomorrow as a technological utopia where atomic power solved all ills, and personalities like Wernher von Braun appeared on TV to show off the possibilities of a space station and real-life moon rocket. The post-war Western world was pretty excited about the possibility of things to come. After so much technological improvement in such a short space of time, how could you not be excited about the future, right?
Some folks reading this probably remember The Jetsons or similar shows and cartoons that forecasted the future as a world where robots made life easier and humans had it good. Tomorrowland was, one could argue, the idea of a bright and perfect future made manifest. While what exists at Disney World today isn’t exactly what the immortal Mouse would have envisioned, the original prototype was going to be a complete, functioning city—a pet project of Disney’s designed as a proof of concept.
Of course, prototype though it was, the utopia that Tomorrowland represented was flawed from the start—a failed utopia in all but name. Trouble is, you can only get in if you can afford tickets to Disney World, which many people cannot. Funny how utopias tend to brush over the whole issue of accessibility for all.
The inverse is one that has become a lot more popular over the last thirty years—the image of a Cyberpunk dystopia. The idea of the world being a place of purple-tinged urban, eternal night, ruled by mega-corporations with no regulation. Neuromancer, Shadowrun, Blade Runner—they all paint a bleak picture of the future where we have ads transmitted directly into our brains, horrible crimes against humanity are committed on the daily, and the idea of human rights is on a whole new level (but you also get cyberarms that punch through buildings, so that’s pretty cool).
So how did our expectations of the future pull a 180 like this? Well, as a business major, it’s hard for me to say, but the truth is... capitalism happened. Not capitalism in its entirety, mind you—if you look at the business practices of many companies in the US in the 70s, 80s and 90s, they’ve been increasingly aggressive—painting a picture of a corporate-centric world. As a species, we awoke from our dreams of the future and found ourselves in this dark, uncaring planet. It’s sad, but at least there’s some pretty amazing technology to enjoy along the way.
What do I believe, though? I believe in the freedom to choose. The future isn’t a concrete thing. There are people up top who make a lot of the decisions that define it, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept a slow shift into a dystopian hell. Instead, we need to understand that we are architects of our own future. We don’t have to accept that our future is going to be dour and inevitably horrible. Rather, imagine it in terms of what it could be, and push towards that. Together, I wholeheartedly believe that we can make it happen.