When we think of technology and the many scenarios it can present, we often think outside the box, and create stories in our heads. There are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to what technology we can create, and, debatably more importantly, how we interact with its design.
Retrofuturism (specifically Cyberpunk) is an example of a genre that humans have shaped their ideas of their relationships with technology around. We create narratives and reveries in order to deal with and absorb the overwhelming magnitude of technology and all its possibilities.
Retrofuturism, a style in the creative arts and media from the second half of the 20th century, can be defined as, “an ambivalent fascination for a future that never came to pass (Guffey & Lemay 2014),” combining retro styles with futuristic technology. An example of retrofuturism used in design is the “Visions of the Future” poster series about NASA’s study of exoplanets. This series, created by The Studio, a team of creative visual strategists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, consists of fourteen posters that the team of artists, designers and illustrators created in order to, “share a sense of things on the edge of possibility that are closely tied to the work [the people at NASA] are doing today (Jet Propulsion Laboratory n.d., para. 2),” as creative strategist David Delgado mentioned. The creative team brought an element of comfort and old-world charm to something incredibly unknown that alienates and alarms people often. Typographer Lois Kim mentioned, “We wanted to create a retro-future feel… (Jet Propulsion Laboratory n.d., para. 7).”
(Jet Propulsion Laboratory n.d.)
This poster series has been a huge inspiration to many artists and designers and also heightened the public’s interest in space technology and the work NASA is doing for the future of space travel and study. Making the prospect of space exploration and study aesthetically appealing and comforting through their retrofuturistic design approach is therefore helping further advancements in space technology since people are not as overwhelmed by how incongruous it sounds.
Cyberpunk, a subgenre of retrofuturism, exists within dystopian settings and revolves around a, “high tech low life (Ketterer 1992),” society, containing poor social conditions with highly advanced technology. The 1982, science fiction thriller ‘Blade Runner’, directed by Ridley Scott, is set within the cyberpunk genre and explores, “a vision of humanity dehumanized by technology (Shmoop n.d.).” The people within the Blade Runner world are completely dependent on technology and this ultimately becomes their downfall. Humans have a, “non-neutral, transformative power… enhanced by technologies,” and, “the amplifying/magnifying power of technologies, in the late twentieth century, has brought to the fore the human-technological power of a geological force (Ihde 1993).” If we lead ourselves on a technology-dependent path to the future, we will become our own downfalls, much like in ‘Blade Runner’. Films like these cause us to rethink in which directions we want to take our technological advancements and offer insights into how the world could possibly become if we allow ourselves to succumb to an all-technology dependent way of life.
Hence, by mixing the ‘known’ with the ‘unknown’ in genres such as these, we create glimpses into what technology could exist in the future without entirely alienating or terrifying people. Humans tend to seek comfort wherever they can, and alienating them completely will not encourage them to pursue futuristic avenues. Having a tether to current reality, such as what people did for retrofuturism as a whole and the cyberpunk genre specifically, whilst futuring, can help manifest and ground our technological ideas. We need to be able to see both positive and negative outcomes, as well as a mixture of the two, in order to lead ourselves into a better informed, technologically developed future.
Guffey, E. & Lemay, K.C. 2014, ‘Retrofuturism and Steampunk’, in Latham, R. (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, Oxford University Press, London, p. 434.
Ihde, D. 1993, ‘Technology’, Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction, Paragon House, New York, pp. 47-66.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory n.d., JPL Visions of the Future Posters, California, viewed 14 October 2016, <http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/visions-of-the-future/about.php>.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory n.d., PSO J318.5-22 – Where the Nightlife Never Ends!, viewed 14 October 2016, <http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/visions-of-the-future/about.php>.
Ketterer, D. 1992, Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.
Shmoop n.d., BLADE RUNNER INTRODUCTION, viewed 14 October 2016, <http://www.shmoop.com/blade-runner/>.