Saturday, January 24, 2015

Back to the retrofuture

The word "retrofuture" perfectly captures one's thinking about a number of "new" things after one has been around the historical block a few times. It was brought to my attention by Argentine graphic artist Germán Ponce, who was captivated by a "new" design of a Renault that stylizes one from the 1960s.

Of course, retrofuture involves, first, a sense of déjà vu.

Take, for example, the Cloud, that wired or wireless repository of data and, increasingly, programs in a location far, far away. The tendency toward subscription software and data in the Cloud coupled with the electronic tablet reminds me of nothing so much as the mainframe and the dumb terminal.

Is it good? Is it bad? Retrofuture involves some ill foreboding.

Who can deny that Libertarian Rand Paul, with his proclaimed love of the business owner's freedom to choose who will be served, wants to take us back to 1963 and the "white" and "colored" lunch facilities? Or that the Bush family wants to take us back to the political economy of 1915 ... or 1815?

Yet the retrofuture is not all evil.

Think of the commodious, quiet, nonpolluting streetcar of yesteryear. When they first electrified the streetcars, which originally were pulled by horses, the vehicles were said to travel at 15 km/h, a speed that is said to have prompted my horse-and-buggy era maternal grandmother to have exclaimed, "They'll kill themselves!"

The street car was killed in many countries by a greedy combination of auto and petroleum industries and plutocratic demagogues of the 1930s, 40s and 50s (see "General Motors streetcar conspiracy").

Now it's coming back in many U.S. cities. The streetcar will save the Earth!

Germán is a youngish man who is fond of now "classic" designs of my boyhood and adolescence in the 1950s and 60s. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that he does not realize quite how much of everything new is actually is something I have seen before. I say so with a bit of envy and that curmudgeonly sentiment that "youth is wasted on the young."

But some of it was wonderful and some of the wonders are coming back. So I join my artistic friend in celebrating the retrofuture, a place in which some good ideas from the past come back and the bad ones are again rejected.

Thank you, my friend, for an eminently useful word.

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