Peter York On Ads: You travel in time to 2178 and all you get are flying footballers
Sunday 17 February 2008
The future's got a long history, you know. I'm convinced that in the fantastically creaky, camp (men in skirts) film 'Things to Come', made in 1936, a group of skirty thesps look over a sort of prow of the universe and intone "The future" in a crazed way.
Future-casting's always been a great job for novelists and film makers. What we love now is seeing where they got it right and wrong, playing schadenfreude with great artists and minor ones. It's very levelling. The sets of 'Metropolis' or a Marinetti painting are surprisingly effective – were they just projecting things they'd already seen emerging in New York?
It's when you move from a building aesthetic or a particular invention to a social world that everything starts to go wrong. Future-facing writers and film-makers haven't been that good at realising future mindsets, the stream of modern consciousness. Alex in 'A Clockwork Orange' has an elegant Old Culture turn of phrase and reference beneath the choreographed brutality. But there's nothing that elegant about inarticulate hoodies. It's terribly hard to anticipate an attitude and get the words to fit.
And it's difficult to get the social context right, too. Future-casters always seem to fall into the trap of imagining that a few bits of astonishing new technology will make for utterly new social relationships. So a lot of instant information will foster rationality and high-minded conversation, for instance, whereas we know it means online dating and sending silly pictures round the world.
Conversely, there's the danger of fitting remarkable change – spaceships and time machines – into a social world that hasn't moved an inch, like the Edwardians did. People don't use new technologies in the ways their inventors expect; they subvert, convert and hybridise them.
I was once heavily involved with a government future-casting initiative. It involved my betters – high-level scientists and economists – and they'd thought it through; they'd got a Method and Processes and Metrics (such as the Delphi approach to predicting the likelihood of a given development). But the problem was that it covered practically every kind of endeavour in our national life. And the Method and the Process had to be applied to a group of wildly dissimilar worlds, from aerospace to entertainment. And that's where it broke down.
At the same time as all that government and corporate scenario planning (all the biggest Incs and Plcs are doing it), there was the Golden Age of cool-hunting, in the go-ahead Nineties (it's so over now). Cool-hunting tried to predict the future in terms of the really important things in life – the design of trainers, ways to wear a scarf – by, broadly, identifying and observing people who were dummy-running the future already.
Puma probably still has cool-hunters coming out of its ears. Its new commercial is set in an imagined future – CGI-generated, of course. It starts with one of those aerial views of an electric twilight city of tall buildings and greenish lights (which always makes me think of Seventies disco). It's AD 2178. Down there's a vast sports stadium, where a new technology has enabled football players to bounce and fly. They've got extraordinary new metallic legs, a cross between sci-fi horses and the double amputee athlete Oscar Pistorius's weird Cheetah carbon-fibre blades. It all makes for some remarkable playing, but why do they think anyone's going to be remotely interested in football in 2178?
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