Around the beginning of the 20th Century, some French artists were asked to design a series of cards that would imagine what life would be like 100 years in the future in the year 2000. The first cards were created for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris and eventually there were at least 87 of them.
This was the mechanical age, the dawn of automation. So it’s not surprising that the artists’ futurism imagines the newest, sexiest technologies of the day applied to solve everyday tasks.
Then there were the discoveries of science projected to practical uses in the future (without the inherent dangers).
Some of the ideas were prescient, if strictly analog in their execution.
Though not nearly so clumsy-looking as this early Roomba.
You can see 57 of the cards here at Wikimedia.
It’s fascinating how much the artists’ imaginations are inspired by technologies of the day, but also how mundane are the tasks they suppose those technologies might solve. And yet, it’s also remarkable how many of the artists imagined technologies that have actually come to pass in some form.
Their versions of the future were strongly rooted in their present, and for good reason. Imagine if one of them had seen ahead and figured out the digital revolution and drawn an actual Roomba. It wouldn’t have made any sense to anyone. It would have seemed like magic, like fantasy. It would have seemed impossible. Without anchoring their futurism in the familiar and nudging the viewer’s imagination forward with things they already knew, their version of the future wouldn’t have had credibility.
The claim has long been made that artists drive innovation:
Grand projects like the Great Pyramids, the Hoover Dam, or a moon landing were preceded by stories. “Someone had to imagine them and create a narrative that brought that vision to life for others.” Or as Neal Stephenson puts it, science fiction “supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place,” producing icons that serve as “hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on which everyone agrees.” Science fiction is a way to craft big, compelling visions that will get people working on building the future.
The question is, in the age of accelerating technological innovation driven by the wizards of Silicon Valley, are artists still out front painting visions of the future? Ask someone where today’s great ideas are coming from, and few will point to art. Instead, they’re likely to mention neuroscience or tech or medicine. If once Beethoven and Michelangelo and Shakespeare gave insight to the human condition as imagined in their time, which artists are serving that role now?