Art byPaul Sizer

Business has long imagined strange and wonderful futures, and it’s not done yet

Marketing the future has been at times naïve, weird and dark, but there’s a method in the madness.

Marketing the future has been at times naïve, weird and dark, but there’s a method in the madness.

“We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives,” declared US celebrity psychic The Amazing Criswell, famous in the 1950s and 1960s for his wildly improbable predictions. In books, newspaper columns and TV appearances he informed the US that a craze for devouring human flesh would sweep the nation, the laws of gravity would cease functioning and the first humans on the Moon would be three pregnant female Soviet cosmonauts. In 1969 he also predicted television personalities would no longer be seen smoking, which doesn’t seem so outrageous today.

It’s hard not to think about Criswell while contemplating what the future might hold after the disruptive events of 2020. Making predictions has always been risky, so why should we still do it? One reason might be because the future has become an important part of the business narrative over the past century. No matter what a company is selling, its best product is often a vision of the future. The customer’s world would soon be one of ease and leisure, speed and convenience. The future gives meaning and direction to all those quarterly projections, strategy documents and planning sessions.

The future is 14-lane highways and smoking robots

A look back at how this message developed over the decades suggests we need it now more than ever. Take, for example, the General Motors ‘Futurama’ experience at 1939 New York World’s Fair.

1939 General Motors Futurama ride at the New York World’s Fair

With the Great Depression finally over, the fair’s opening pitch was ‘dawn of a new day.’ It was the first time the world of tomorrow had been used as the theme for an international exposition. General Motors offered its visitors a filmic ‘ride’ over a transport system for the year 1960. Laid out below them were fourteen-lane highways, self-driving cars and residential complexes with landing strips for private aircraft.

It didn’t matter that General Motors didn’t make any of these things – the public flocked to Futurama, just as they packed Westinghouse’s Hall of Electrical Living to marvel at Elektro, the Moto-Man: A walking, talking robot that smoked cigarettes. At the time, Westinghouse was best known for its toasters and radios, but these were now part of the promise of tomorrow. In fact, the company doubled down on this association, burying a time capsule at the fair’s Flushing Meadows site, not to be unearthed until the year 6939, some five thousand years into the future.

‘Cheap and reliable’ can change the world

One visitor to the 1939 World’s Fair came away with a clear idea of where this was all heading. Vannevar Bush, head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, drew upon his impressions of the exposition when writing ‘As we may think‘ in 1945. First published in The Atlantic, Bush’s essay on the future of information technology would become a key text, influencing generations of engineers and designers. Recalling the typewriters and computing machines he’d seen back in 1939, Bush made an important discovery: The modern world, he declared, had “arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.”

The prospect of sophisticated pieces of technology being both cheap and reliable would have far-reaching implications. They brought complex engineering into the home, connecting it directly with the world of tomorrow. Big science and big business came as part of the package. Popular Mechanics’ December 1952 issue featured an article on playing safe with atomic rays alongside one on selecting your Christmas tree.

For producers and consumers alike, the future was happening right in front of them. Everything from transistors to oil seals looked more exciting if your sales pitch included a rocket ship blasting off in the background.

The future can be both familiar and new

The reliability of such devices had implications for new marketing concepts like brand management, increasing a product’s perceived value with the customer’s sense of reassurance. But reassurance can breed familiarity. The more a consumer takes a product for granted, the more its perceived value declines for them. The promise of tomorrow starts to wear thin. Or as future president Ronald Reagan put it in a 1950s sales pitch for General Electric, “Progress is our most important product. If you’re sitting back at General Electric you’re probably falling behind.” The product should not appear too reliable or familiar. After all, who wants to buy a used future?

“Suddenly it’s 1960!” Chrysler proudly announced when marketing the ’57 Plymouth as part of its ‘forward look’ campaign. Bringing out a new model car every year had become standard industry practice by then – marketing your latest design features as ‘three years ahead of their time’ was simply the next step.
future as business narrative
As chance would have it, 1960 was also the year Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers was published – a book that introduced the term ‘planned obsolescence.’ Famous for his exposé on advertising techniques, The Hidden Persuaders, Packard argued companies were deliberately engineering products to limit their future usefulness, making it easier to replace them than repair them. Tomorrow became a malfunction waiting to happen: A point eloquently made with the opening of 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Built on the same Flushing Meadows site as the 1939 model, it was an update on the same message. General Motors opened another Futurama ride that “takes you into the future and makes you feel like you are there – in outer space, beneath the sea, in unbelievable places watching believable things happen.” More ambitious than the 1939 version, if offered visitors a glimpse of what life would be like in the year 2024.

1964 General Motors Futurama ride New York World’s Fair

As the fair drew to a close, business insider Alvin Toffler published his essay ‘The future as a way of life,’ later expanded into the bestselling book Future Shock. Published in 1970, it argued society was psychologically incapable of responding effectively to rapid technological change.

“I’ve always been careful never to predict anything that had not already happened,” media guru Marshall McLuhan observed in a television interview that same year. “The future is not what it used to be. It is here.” McLuhan spent most of the previous decade advising corporations how to survive in an age of rapid networked communications.

Tomorrow gets darker

In 1968 Stanley Kubrick’s movie epic 2001: A Space Odyssey connected corporate America with the future by placing familiar brands in the 21st century. Those on display included IBM, Howard Johnson and Whirlpool. Some, however, had disappeared by the time 2001 came around. Pan American airlines, shown flying a shuttle service into low Earth orbit, folded in 1991.

In the end, predictions are only accurate reflections of the times that make them.

Kubrick’s 2001 showed confidence about the future that had all but drained away by 1999. By then people were already asking where their jetpacks and videophones were – shouldn’t the future be here by now? The paperless office of the future, first introduced in a 1975 Business week article, remained as far away as ever, despite assurances that “the use of paper in business […] should be declining by 1980.”

As an indication of how gloomy the business of the future had become by the mid-1980s, Apple Computers announced their Macintosh desktop in terms of a more dystopian world of tomorrow, promising viewers of their launch ad, “you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.””

Apple Macintosh ‘1984’ ad

There was also the chance that on new year’s eve 1999, every computer on the planet would cease functioning the second it recalibrated itself for the year 2000. The millennium (or Y2K) bug, as it was called, would cause planes to fall out of the sky and nuclear power plants to melt down. Thanks to engineers and programmers around the world working to ensure January 1 would indeed see the dawn of a new day, the new millennium began with few disruptions.

The problem hadn’t just been a technical one, however. Life in the year 2000 could never have matched its hype in advertising campaigns over the past fifty years. RCA, for example, marketed an advanced ‘2000’ color TV “set of the future,” appropriately priced at 2000 US dollars. In France there was a mania for adding the number 2000 to everything from beer to pet grooming salons to emphasize a connection with the bright promise of tomorrow.

Anticipated to the point of exhaustion, the year 2000 could exist only in the public imagination – it was doomed to never happen.

Death of the cultural and technological decade

The one thing that truly stopped working from the start of the 21st century was our collective ability to map out technological and economic progress in decades. From the 1930s, this incremental ten-year unit became the steppingstone to the world of tomorrow. As each decade came into focus as the decade of the future, separating itself from what came before it, so too did the concept of associating them with a significant cultural, social or political change.

To mention the 1960s, 70s or 80s was to call up a specific set of products and designs. It was what allowed Marshall McLuhan to advise business leaders that ‘the future’s future is the present,’ a statement that could have applied to any decade in the latter half of the twentieth century. This perception became increasingly blurred once we entered the new millennium. In the twenty-first century it is no longer possible to identify progress through a decade’s look, mood or direction. The only people to talk about ‘the noughties’ with any consistency were journalists, and even they didn’t seem convinced.

Upgrades as the new measure of time

The old mode of reckoning didn’t mesh with the new century. Cars today, for example, tend not to feature the year in which they were first rolled out as an added value. The upgrade has now become the new unit of measurement, whether it’s an operating system, a platform or a device. Before the coronavirus pandemic, customers around the world had been known to queue all night outside Apple stores to buy the latest iteration of the iPhone. Apple has continued what the US car industry started in announcing a new model every year.

Not surprisingly, the tech industry has also been accused of factoring new forms of planned obsolescence into their products. The contemporary term ‘future-proofing’ reflects a growing concern with anticipating the disadvantages brought by changes that have not yet been made. It’s planned obsolescence 2.0 – the post-millennial version of Future Shock. Meanwhile, in a gesture that General Motors and Westinghouse would have appreciated back in 1939, Elon Musk fitted his own ‘midnight cherry’ Tesla Roadster to a Space-X rocket in 2018 and sent it on a rendezvous with Mars. It may be the first roadworthy vehicle in outer space, but it’s still just a car.

And that’s the point about the future: It’s a narrative that lets business communicate with its times. Has anyone received an Amazon delivery by drone since the idea was first announced in 2016? Narratives are useful for planning and communication, but we shouldn’t let ourselves grow too comfortable with them. The future is a narrative meant to help us think more freely, not a foregone conclusion.

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