Landscapes of the Future

When we picture the landscape of the future, what kind of landscape do we picture?

Projections of Earth into the future tend to focus on cities that have grown bigger, taller, and more pervasive. William Gibson’s influential science-fiction novel Neuromancer (1984), for example, takes place partly in the Sprawl, a giant swath of uninterrupted urbanization extending from Boston to Atlanta. “Blade Runner” (1982) takes place in 2019 in a Los Angeles that is an enlarged and grittier version of today’s L.A. “Escape from New York” (1981)  and its sequel  “Escape from L.A.” (1996) take the urban-decay trend to an extreme, positing a future where Manhattan and Los Angeles have been turned into hellish penal colonies.

Some sunnier visions of an urban future can be found on Paleo-Future, a blog that collects futuristic visions from the past century and a half(1). For example, a 1901 illustration in Collier’s Weekly depicts a cloudy, majestic New York City in 2001, postcards from the turn of the century show a roofed-over city (a common meme), and a 1982 book on Epcot Center includes a picture of a modernist-looking space colony.

“The Jetsons” (1962-3, 1985-7), one of the most familiar visions of the future for the past few generations of Americans, is set in a 2062 where people live in single-family separated houses in the sky and drive around in private flying cars. Employment on “The Jetsons” is mostly white-collar or in the service industry. All of this looks a lot like the suburbs, which must have seemed like the inevitable landform of the future in the early 1960s. Suburban forms were common in futurism from the late 18th century until the late 20th century, from Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities to Disney’s “Magic Highway, USA“.

Rural settings also appear in science fiction, but mostly as backwater planets in futures that also include metropolis city-worlds. For example, most of the Star Wars movies includes scenes on Tatooine, a desert world that consists mostly of moisture farms and dusty spaceports. But other scenes are set on the ecumenopolis of Coruscant or inside the Death Star, which is pictured not as a city (and certainly not as a countryside) but as a gigantic building. In the Star Wars future, the galaxy is really something like a single planet writ large, with a rural periphery and an urban center. Other works of science fiction, like the various “Star Trek” series, present us with similar world-writ-large galaxies (or universes), although as far as I know there are never any suburban planets.

The future landscapes we’re most familiar with, then, either take the city or suburb as their basis or simply magnify our current distribution of city and countryside. Indeed, it sounds almost contradictory, or at least counter-intuitive, to talk about a future that focuses on the countryside. This may be because rural futurisms are outside the mainstream—of interest mostly to ruralites(2), perhaps—or because (sub)urban futurisms have supplanted them in recent times, but it definitely isn’t because the future has never been imagined as rural. For example, Paleo-Future has excerpts from a 1961 article on “factory farms,” a 1979 book on the “superfarm of the year 2020,” and a 1982 book on (of course) robot farms.

Another vision of a rural future comes from a 1970 National Geographic article, “More Food for Our Multiplying Millions: The Revolution in American Agriculture,” by James B. Billard. As far as I can tell the article isn’t available online, but the following description of it is from Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott:

“Its vision of the farm of the future […] was not an idle fantasy; it was, we are told, drawn ‘with the guidance of U.S. Department of Agriculture specialists.’ Billard’s text is one long paean to mechanization, scientific marvels, and huge scale. For all the technical wizardry, he envisions a process of simplification of the landscape and centralization of command. Fields will be larger, with fewer trees, hedges, and roads; plots may be ‘several miles long and a hundred yards wide.’; ‘weather control’ will prevent hailstorms and tornadoes; atomic energy will ‘level hills’ and make irrigation water from seawater; satellites, sensors, and airplanes will spot plant epidemics while the farmer sits in his control tower.”

The picture illustrating the article is the same as in the superfarm link above. It includes all the usual motifs of future landscapes: bubble-topped buildings, sleek conic and cylindrical forms, and an absolute orderliness stretching as far as the horizon.

It is unusual to see these forms, not to mention other futurist staples like weather control and robots, in a rural context. After all, we base our predictions for the future on extrapolations of current trends, and there’s no doubt that the current worldwide demographic trend is towards urban areas and away from rural ones.In 2008, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population lived in cities. It’s no surprise, then, that when we look into the future, it’s usually cities that we see.

(1) It was surprisingly hard to find examples on Paleo-Future of any kind of future landscape, whether urban, suburban, rural, or other. Instead a lot of posts are about social or economic conditions, transportation, or (especially) robots. This may say something about the rarity of attempts to come up with a comprehensive vision of a future world, or it may just say something about what the author of Paleo-Future is interested in.

(2) Interesting that “urbanite” and “suburbanite” are words but “ruralite” is not, and there is no equivalent (non-pejorative) word for a resident of the countryside.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

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2 Responses to “Landscapes of the Future”

  1. xghost aka artichoke spokes Says:

    an answer to the question: what do I picture for a futuristic landscape: robot trees! and robot hedges, that you can “prune” using shears that upon contact make the hedges contract their branches into a more beautiful looking shape. Including dinosaur shape.

  2. Galas Galileo Says:

    On the topic of the Jetsons, Luke’s BA thesis has a passage dedicated to utopian visions of elevated spaces that you might find interesting in fleshing out some of your ideas. here:

    http://lukejoy.com/writing.html

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