Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I am currently working on a project about the future. This new research study in Maastricht is a sociological examination of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. This is a fascinating and emerging field, where individuals can find out about their susceptability for a range of diseases in their future. This is just one aspect of the technology - people can also find out about their ancestory lineage, have matchmaking genetic tests which promise a better sex-life and 'healthy children', or even have their cats and dogs genetically tested.

People want to know about the future for a whole range of reasons, often to reduce the element of unwanted surprise and master the unknown. It may also be that we are curious, and genetic testing is a new technology to be played with. I am reading a great book on this topic at the moment, called Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future by Helga Nowotny (recommended by a colleague). Nowonty writes that the shape, the content, the fullness of the future, and the images we construct of it, have significance only in the present. Some of us have a utopian vision of the future, for others it is dystopian.

The retro-futuristic representation of pneumatic tube systems is certainly often cast in a utopian light, although the bureaucratic monotony of the technology also has a dystopian air in works such as 1984 and Brazil. For those who are optomistic, Nowotny writes that “the space of the future is filled with new technological visions and highly promising mini-utopias that hold the potential to make life easier, better, and more beautiful”. This seems a wonderful description of how pneumatic tubes are often considered in hospitals, banks and homes. Pneumatic tubes have made their way into a number of futuristic scenarios, most noteably Futurama's Tube Transport System (for Futurama's best healthcare moments, see this Comedy Central post) and the Jetsons, as well as 1984 and Brazil. Whilst pneumatic tubes are often projected as something of the future, they are not new. The new is unknown, whereas the future, or our vision of it, often says much more about the present and the past.

Retro-futuristic images of pneumatic tubes have many traces of another era of technological advance - the industrial revolution. We can learn about this history, and much more, by looking at how, as society, we consider, represent, use and play with 'technologies of the future'.

Image from Vintage Culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment