Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Whence Tomorrowland?

On New Year's Day I told how I had come to realize the scope of the changes that had occurred during my lifetime, even if they were not the changes I and many others had imagined. It occurs to me that there is a significant difference in kind between the mid-20th century's vision of the future and the actual technological changes that have taken place. My wife Kara pointed out that our "progress" has essentially consisted of an accumulation of gadgets (like the ones I listed in the aforementioned post). But, as I also noted in that post, the look of things is basically the same. For the midcentury vision of tomorrow was to a large degree an aesthetic vision. Our streamlined, googie buildings, together with similarly futuristically styled clothes, vehicles, and yes, even household gadgets, would all communicate that we had arrived in the space age.

In the 50's, it probably seemed that modernist design (together with the fledgling space program) was well on the way to realizing this vision, and indeed the 50's futurist aesthetic is essentially a colorful and imaginative extension of midcentury modernism. It might have seemed logical to suppose that the modernist movement would evolve into something very much resembling the Googie or Tomorrowland aesthetic as the Space Age took us to other worlds while remodeling our earthly home in an exciting, fresh, and forward-looking style. Aesthetics, especially the aesthetics of our environment, has a profound effect on our psychology. Our built environment expresses and makes concrete our ideas and ideals and at the same time greatly influences our thinking and feeling. It's true that the Tomorrowland look is not the only one that might have provided a positive aesthetic for the 21st century, but no one came up with anything better in its place. Instead, it was given up for the anti-style and anti-vision of post-modernism.


  1. I wonder if somewhere in the late 20th Century, people began to mistake ambition and imagination for a kind of hubris. I'm wondering if our corporate vision for the future was not arrested by a kind of implosion in the human soul. It seems like daring at some point gave way to caution and openness to guardedness. Any thoughts?

  2. I think there's a lot of truth to this. Have you read Ray Bradbury's short story "The Toynbee Convector"? (It's in the book of the same name.) In this story, which Bradbury wrote in the 80's, he addresses this very issue, how cynicism and pessimism took over our culture in recent decades. A great book that also addresses this topic is "The Dream of Spaceflight", a collection of essays by Wyn Wachhorst.