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06/08/2022 | Portraits and stories

Yesterday's Tomorrow - Why We Dream of the Future

While Mr. B brushes his teeth, his breakfast is prepared fully automatically. He takes a tray from the special oven, with a ready cup of coffee and a hot dish encased in aluminum foil. At the same time, his newspaper printer activates itself and delivers him the latest news. He switches on the television; he can choose between 19 programs. Instead of teleworking as usual, he goes to the office today. After all, people still work 25 hours a week. By inserting a coin, he rents an electric car - private vehicles like those of his childhood no longer exist.

Image: Adobe Stock

Almost exactly 50 years ago, ZDF presented a vision of the future in the program "Richtung 2000. The station was not alone in this. In the 19th century, Jules Verne was already dreaming of flight to the moon and giant submarines like the Nautilus in his science fiction works: things that only became reality decades later.

Examples of the desire to know the future abound. Even the ancient Greeks tried to catch a glimpse of the unknown through oracles like the one at Delphi - be it individual fates or the outcome of great battles. Laying cards, reading coffee grounds or consulting the stars are still well-known methods today, albeit dubious ones. "Projections into the future as well as future-oriented actions are not phenomena of the modern age," knows Kassel early modern historian Prof. Dr. Anne-Charlott Trepp. She is the spokesperson for the research project "Back to the Future," which focuses on how and why past societies developed ideas about the future.

Enlightened into the future?

A common assumption is that people in the Middle Ages or pre-modern times had no plans for the distant future. "Commonly, we imagine those times to have been quite bleak, with no visions for the future, let alone for progress and innovation. What the future looked like was found in the biblical narrative," Trepp said. The Bible predicts the end of the world and the glorious New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. "So the course of the times was predetermined. From this, futurology hastily concluded that people saw hardly any options for shaping their own future. This only changed with the Enlightenment and the fundamental repression of religion," explains Trepp. "This view of pre-modern times falls short. We take today's views as a yardstick and thus ignore not least the ideas about the future of non-European societies. We have ample evidence that even before the Enlightenment, people were imagining the world of tomorrow and working specifically toward its realization. Exactly what connection existed between religion and future action is what we are researching."

According to Trepp, one reason why people imagine the future at all follows from the certainty of their own finiteness: "It seems to be a human need to have an effect beyond one's own life and to be present." To some extent, the desire for transcendence resonates here.

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Early visions of the future: Angels show the way to the New Jerusalem. Woodcut, Albrecht Dürer 1498

Paradise versus Apocalypse

Drafts of the future are also being created in the present. Through modern film technology and animation, they become reality, even if only on the screen. Probably the best-known genre for such films is science fiction. Classics like Star Trek have been creating perspectives of future worlds for decades. "To portray these credibly, the landscape is particularly significant," explains Friederike Meyer-Roscher of the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture.

She is completing her doctorate on the representation of landscape in science fiction film and has led seminars in which students designed utopian and dystopian worlds. "Overall, it's striking that the motifs in science fiction haven't changed much in the last 100 years: People are getting poorer because of a rich elite, technical progress is destroying our planet, and the city usually becomes a symbol of the negative, with dense high buildings that displace nature."

Nina Gerlach, a professor of art studies in Münster, Germany, developed the thesis that since 1945, nature has always been positively evaluated in films and associated with good protagonists. "In evaluations of film images, we also always examine the association of landscape with a specific type of character. In Star Wars, for example, 'good' characters move on Earth-like planets with green vegetation, while the 'bad' ones move on volcanic landscapes or in factory buildings," Meyer-Roscher explains. "However, there is a growing trend for the classic hero to be linked to dystopian landscapes and threatening wilderness, and for the antagonist to be increasingly associated with landscapes and gardens with positive connotations."

Image: Adobe Stock
Vision of the future today: In many science fiction films, cities have something gloomy about them.

For Meyer-Roscher, these visions say more about the present than the future. "These landscapes are often inspired by real existing places. They also take up themes that are relevant today, and often take them to extremes. Visions of the future are much more a reflection of the present."             

We also design whether the world in our imagination will be rosy or end in the apocalypse based on the present reality of life. Says Trepp, "It takes a positive image of the future to exert a shaping influence. In view of the climate crisis, the Corona pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it may be difficult to be optimistic at present. But it is also worth taking a look at history when dealing with experiences of crisis. It is precisely times of crisis that produce means of changing the future."


Dennis Müller
This text is from publik 2/2022, June 14, 2022.