William Gibson and our Retro Futures

Example of Streamline Moderne style in a judge...
Example of Streamline Moderne style in a judge’s tower at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. Image by User:Leonard G. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday I questioned why The Golden West Review had never delved into California’s alternate futures. Surely, I thought, this might be an interesting line of thought that would intrigue our readers.

Yet as I started outlining a handful of articles about the subject I started to realize why this might take us down a bad track. First, when you walk down any Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the tendrils of depression and hopelessness start wending your way into the writing and into the cerebral cortices of the reader. This publication has many goals, but serving the Prozac-industrial complex is not one of them.

Second, Many of those imagined futures we no know to be based on assumptions that were either wrong or no longer apply. Pereira and Luckman’s original concept design for a grandiose terminal and control tower at LAX, for example, is a relic of an era where air travel was the privilege of an elite few and South Bay real estate was cheap. Frank Lloyd Wright’s monumental plan for the Los Angeles Civic Center was, given the fragmented land ownership in Downtown Los Angeles, impractical from the start. And Frank Lumsden’s Santa Monica Bay Village plan, proposed in 1968, was ill-fated in an era of environmentalism and an activist California Coastal Commission.

Yet the factor that finally made me decide against a series on California’s lost futures was the memory of a superb short story by the author William Gibson called “The Gernsback Continuum.” In the story, Gibson’s protagonist, an architectural photographer, is hired to travel around the California and record the more prominent examples of Streamline Moderne and other features of the human landscape that were relics of early-mid 20th century modernism. In the end, the protagonist discovers that the future we have – as dystopian as it may seem in comparison to the vision embodied in Disney’s Tomorrowland – is in its own way the better future.

On reflection (and without going all Candide on this), I tend to agree.

So, if you don’t mind, we’ll stick with the real past, the good in the present, and  a future worth creating.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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