In Annie Ernaux’s literary-sociological portrait of French society from the 40s to the present, Les Années (‘The Years’, 2009), an anonymous any-family sits around the Sunday lunch table and pictures life in the year 2000: what they imagine are familiar sci-fi visions of meals replaced with a single pill, domestic labour performed by robots and houses on the moon. They soon lose interest, however; who cares how people will be living in 40 years’ time when you’re busy living now?
Growing up in the 1980s, the 21st Century didn’t seem any nearer or more important to me than it did to Ernaux’s generation, though if anyone had asked I would probably have produced similar accounts of self-driving cars and hoverboards like all the 2015 kids had in Back to the Future 2. The future would – obviously – be all about technology. It would also look futuristic, all chrome and plastic and flashing lights.
What was missing from futuristic visions of progress, though, was how much we’d value things and images from the past. Not the distant past, old enough to be venerated as ‘antique’, but the contemporary past, what was an under-appreciated ‘now’ at the time of imagining. All the technologies we imagined now exist, or nearly: domestic robots can do most housework; commercial space travel is under development; manufacturers of meal-replacement shakes predict the end of food. Google’s first self-driving cars were tested on California roads this June and – most excitingly – a prototype hoverboard was produced last year.
But whatever ‘the future’ is, it often looks pretty much like a pastiche of the past. These now-realised visions of the future exist alongside ‘retro’ fashion and a repopularisation of traditional crafts, in often unexpectedly complementary ways. In a world of mechanised mass-production, a new generation of artisans is finding specialised markets for handmade goods via the web, while amateur enthusiasts swap knitting patterns on dedicated social networks.
Is this contemporary enthusiasm for ‘vintage’, ‘retro’ and ‘handmade’ products just consumerist nostalgia? Or is the co-existence of past and present really what’s ‘contemporary’ about the 21st Century western experience?