Retrofuturism is a great word. It combines the blend of old-fashioned ‘retro’ style, with the future anticipation of technology.
The term was first coined in a review of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil by Pauline Kael (somewhat appropriately in 1984).
At its heart, retrofuturism examines the tension between the past and the future, and the idea that technology has the power to either empower or alienate.
Technological advancements bring the disruption of change. This can be a very good thing; bringing medical breakthroughs, new capabilities that make life better, or improvements in business productivity. But change can also make things worse. It can bring redundancy, obsolescence, and anxiety.
Curiously, technology is a marker for ageing. It is the intersection between new life (moving forward) and death (leaving behind). As we get older we eventually find it harder and harder to ‘keep up’. There is a lot of truth in the idea that older people need teenagers to keep them up to date with things like computers and technology in the home. In this respect, the advance of technology is a pace-keeper for our own sense of ageing.
Retrofuturism is commonly referenced in design, architecture and the Arts. Movements such as Googie architecture, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk and Raygun Gothic are all derivatives of retrofuturism.
The North Otago town of Oamaru has adopted Steampunk as a local aesthetic, and Weta Workshop produced a line of steampunk weaponry branded Dr Grordbort’s. If you download the Energi app from the App store and place the viewer on your phone over this marker you can experience our Steampunk inspired augmented reality experience.
One of the most significant themes in retrofuturism is the battle between a utopian vision in which the future is ideal and perfect versus a dystopian one in which the future is dehumanized and hellish.
Some of the more famous examples of utopian/dystopian works include Back to the Future, the Jetsons, Lost in Space, Star Trek, Brave New World, 1984, the Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Flies, and of course Westworld
In everyday life, technological change can promise comfort and ease in the form of a digital assistant like Siri or Alexa. But it can also bring the nasty threat of privacy breaches in the wrong hands.
The retrofuturistic conflict between utopian good and dystopian evil is also being played out right now in the epic debate raging about Facebook. On one hand, it has entered our everyday lives and connected the world in a way never imagined only a few years ago; and it has helped reinvent the world of advertising and communication. But on the dark side, it has been manipulated to undermine democratic elections and it has been implicated in the spread of terrorism and hate material.
What we can learn from retrofuturism?
Firstly, technology can promise wonderful new things to improve our lives, but it can be a double-edged sword that can bring anxiety, unexpected negative consequences, and a sense of loss. So when you introduce something new, what do you also ask people to give up?
“Secondly, the best of the future can coexist with the best of the past”
I can’t think of a better example of this
(albeit a very pricey one) then Aston Martin, who is re-producing their 1970 DB6 Mark II Volante as a brand new electric vehicle.
Maybe now we can look forward to the past?