Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Coronation and visions of the future

The 1950s version of the future

I watched the Coronation last weekend and it reminded me of some childhood experiences I had in Britain. I remember finding and reading old books from around the time of the previous Coronation that talked about the future. I read these books decades after they were published and it was obvious their predictions were way off course. The books I read were from a British perspective, which was similar in some ways to the American vision, but more black and white.

Hovercraft everywhere

Hovercraft are a British invention and first saw use in the UK in the late 1950s. Of course, the books all had (black and white) photos of hovercraft racing across the waves. The prose was breathless and it was plain the authors felt the future was both air-cushioned and British-led. Uniformly, the authors predicted widespread and worldwide adoption. 

(The National Archives UK, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

By the time I read these books, the problems of hovercraft were becoming apparent; hovercraft as a commercial means of travel were in full retreat. Some of the limitations of hovercraft were well-known in the late 1950s, but none of the books mentioned them, and even as a child, I felt disappointed in the writers' naive optimism. 


In the future, if we weren't traveling in hovercraft, then we were traveling in cars; no one ever seems to use public transport of any kind. There didn't seem to be a British version of a future car, it all seemed to have been imported from America, including the images. Maybe the writers were already justly cynical about the future of the British car industry.

The Conquest of Space

All the books forecasted a space-faring future and all of them had people living on the moon and in space by the year 2000. In this case, the vision wasn't imported, there was a definite British spin on the space future and the images were home-grown too. There was a belief that Britain would have its own space program, including lunar settlements, space stations, and solar system exploration. All the text and images assumed that these would be British missions; other countries might have programs too, but Britain would have its own, independent, space activities.

The home

Like American versions of the future, British versions of the future were deeply conservative. The family would be a husband and wife and two children, with very traditional gender roles. The husband would travel to work in his futuristic car, the wife would prepare meals in a futuristic kitchen, and the children would play board games in front of a giant TV screen. The kitchen was full of futuristic gadgets to prepare meals in minutes, but the interfaces for these gadgets were always knobs, dials, and switches, and they were always metal with an enamel finish, no plastics in the future. The TV doubled as a videophone and there were illustrations of the family talking to their relatives in one of the white British ex-colonies.

The future clothes were largely 1950s clothes, the "clothing is silver in the future" idea was a cliche even then.

Society and politics

Oddly, there were very few predictions about society changing and the writers all missed what should have been obvious trends.

Immigration into the UK had happened for centuries with group after group arriving and settling. If the waves of immigration were large enough, they had an impact on British culture, including food. All of the writers seemed to assume that there would be no mass immigration and no changes in diet as a result (in the future, everyone ate 1950s food). Although it would be hard to guess what the immigrant groups would be, it should have been obvious that there would be immigration and that it would change Britain. This is an unforgivable miss and shows the futurists were naive. 

None of the writers really dealt with the ongoing consequences of the end of Empire. After independence, many countries continued to do business with Britain, but as colonial ties weakened, they started to do business elsewhere, and as a result, British exports dropped and so did employment. The writers had a sunny optimism that things would continue as before. None of them predicted that the ex-colonies could rise and challenge Britain in any way. The same assumption of British superiority ran through the writing.

Of course, the main assumption behind all of the writing, including the fiction, was that the future was heterosexual, middle-class, and white. The class system was very much intact and very much in its 1950s form. People knew their place and the social hierarchy was solid. Even as a child, I thought this was a suffocating view of the future.

Fiction: Arthur C. Clarke and Dan Dare

I have mixed feelings about the British science fiction of the time. It was naively optimistic, but that was part of its charm and appeal.

The leading science fiction comic strip was "Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future", about a future British space pilot who had adventures battling nefarious aliens across the galaxy. Dan was always the good guy and the aliens were always bad, once again, very black and white. Dan's role was to preserve order for humanity (or Britain). It was Britain as a galactic policeman and force for good. Even today, Dan Dare has a following.

Arthur C. Clarke produced a lot of fiction that was very rooted in British culture of the time and once again was very conservative about society. However, he was sunnily optimistic that somehow things would work out for the best. Ingenuity and bravery would always save the day. 

Optimism and conservatism

The two threads running through the different books I read were optimism and conservatism. The optimism was naive but exciting; the authors all believed the future would be a much better place. The conservatism was constraining though and meant they missed big changes they should have seen.

Perhaps optimism and conservatism were a reflection of the times; Britain was still a global power with interests around the world, it had just emerged victorious from World War II but paid a heavy price. The writers were living in a country that was in a relatively strong position relative to others, even other European nations. The rise of Japan and South Korea was still in the future and China was just emerging from its civil war. Maybe British people wanted to believe in a utopian British future and were willing to buy and keep optimistic books that told them comforting things.

What it says

Everyone is wrong about the future, but how they're wrong tells us something about the attitudes and beliefs of the time. These British books of the 1950s forecasted a technologically advanced world with Britain at its core; the world they painted was one where 1950s British values and cultural norms would remain globally dominant. It almost feels as if the writers deliberately built a future in which those values could triumph. 

And what of today?

There's a new King and there will be new books forecasting the future. There's plenty written now about how technology may advance and more writing on how society may change. The difference from the 1950s is the lack of consensus on what society's future may be. I see two opposite trends in fiction and in futurology: pessimism and optimism.

The fiction of choice for pessimism is dystopian. The world as we know it comes to an end through war or zombies or a virus, leaving people fighting for survival. The dominant themes are self-reliance and distrust of strangers; people who are different from you are the enemy.

The fiction of choice for optimism is Star Trek or Dr. Who. The future is fundamentally a decent place with the occasional existential crisis. People work together and strangers are mostly good people who could be your friends. 

Perhaps this split says a lot about today's society. We create futures where the values we believe in can thrive.

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