Institute of Para-Enactment Research
Softcore Historicism and Embodied Heritage


Defuturing the image
of the future

in: Designs for Different Futures. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.

Postcard promoting the 1906 Colonial Exposition in Paris.


Images of the future are images of the totally other, and they are revolutionary and radical in nature, or they are nothing at all.

—Fred L. Polak, The Image of the Future, 19611
This essay was written before the introduction of a novel coronavirus into the human population that would create a global pandemic in 2020, and before the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis that would catalyze a worldwide quest for racial justice. As the world went still and the massive global movement of people and goods and the burning of fossil fuels slowed, we saw a fleeting glimpse of an alternate ecological future. Nature took command of humanity. As crowds took to the streets to demand justice and monuments of oppression fell to the ground, we saw a glimpse of an alternate cultural future. Consciousness was awakened. Both events have dramatically illuminated an impulse to “defuture the future” by exposing the many failings of the systems that have been created to perpetuate the status quo—a pernicious form of futurity that is simply an act of extending the present. We are now being called upon to radically undo these scripts, for instance, to “defund the police” and “decenter whiteness.” But to effectively defuture the future course of Western civilization we must produce alternate realities, imagining and instantiating other futures—for instance, Black and white, indigenous and immigrant, global South and global North.

All acts of design are themselves small acts of future-making. In the process of illustrating ideas, fabricating models, drafting plans, or prototyping solutions, designers shape what does not yet exist. In this way design is both propositional and prospective—it offers renderings and mock-ups, schematics and drawings, and instructions and code in the hope of instantiating a future. Design attempts to script the future by projecting its desires (and those of others) forward in time. As Susan Yelavich has declared, “Design is always future-making.”2

Yet design’s propensity for future-making is more than just a by-product of its capacity to birth what does not yet exist. In its break with history, modern design formed a natural alliance with futurity predicated on a rejection of the past. Starting from zero, modernity’s quest for the new leapfrogged the theretofore incremental evolution of ordinary objects; the slow, sometimes generational refinements and improvements to objects accelerated, and whole new categories of things without precedent emerged. As Clive Dilnot has argued, “Modernity is defined by the creation of the future as compensation for the loss of the organic continuity of the past. … After 1900, to design is to design for the future, it is to bring the future into being as a contemporary possibility.”3

But what kind of future emerges through the instantiation of millions of new things? Given the multitudinous array of designs, each can offer only a fragmentary and thus partial glimpse of the future—a future that may or may not be inclusive of your future, or my future, or anyone else’s future, for that matter. Just as there is no single future, only many different possible futures, there is no single design action that can account for the future. We can aggregate designs about the future, but there is no collective consensus or composite picture of the future that emerges. And this condition seems particularly true today—a thought to which I will return.

This lack of a coherent vision of the future of Western civilization wasn’t always the case. In fact, we once thought it was possible to visit this future. The grandest gatherings of designed artifacts and experiences were assembled in the Victorian period and continued well into the twentieth century at the international fairs and expositions that arose during the industrial age, concurrent with the birth and rise of industrial design itself. Ostensibly a survey of contemporary goods and state-of-the-art manufacturing, the world’s fair evolved into a showcase for what tomorrow might bring. It did so under the guise of technological progress as an exclusive form of futurity, particularly as these events became exercises in corporate visioning. The world’s fair prototyped the future as a marketplace, first as a stockpiling of goods (a consumer’s paradise) and later as a showcase of the newest technologies (a technophilic utopia).

More than a billion people attended the major world’s fairs and expos that occurred between 1851 and 2005.4 Presenting the latest industrial products, cultural exchanges, scientific applications, and technological advances, these events became synonymous with future-making. The fair sites themselves, as expensive exercises in nation branding and empiric display, were transformed into fantastic spectacles of futuristic architecture—each a Futuropolis that one could actually visit.5 These cities of the future were punctuated by Eiffel Towers, Crystal Palaces, Geodesic Domes, and Space Needles. Futurama, a display pavilion created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair—designed by Norman Bel Geddes and sponsored by General Motors (at the time, the world’s largest corporation)—was emblematic of such endeavors, offering an experience of America’s near future, some twenty years hence. Seated visitors were mechanically conveyed past a model American city circa 1960 depicting a vast suburban landscape replete with a simulated automated highway system and farms growing artificial crops. Futurama was a smash success, its optimistic portrayal of a future America resonating with a populace just exiting the Great Depression. “I Have Seen the Future,” stated the buttons worn by some of the thirty thousand daily visitors to the pavilion.

The sense of the future realized at this and other world’s fairs was often aided by placing visions of the future in stark contrast against backdrops of the past, for which various indigenous peoples, often from colonies of the host countries, were brought in to reenact daily rituals in simulated natural habitats. Portrayed pejoratively as either simple (“static”) or primitive (“unevolved”), and decidedly non-Western, these ethnographic displays or “living dioramas” can be seen as markers in time, signposts by which visitors could gauge their own progress. The world’s fair was a remarkable demonstration of what Johannes Fabian has termed the inherent contradiction of ethnography, namely, its denial of coevalness, or shared time.6 In the temporal construct of the world’s fair, other cultures were presented as unchanging, while visitors’ sense of the present was suspended and supplanted by simulations of their future lives. It was thus not only other lands and lives that were colonized but the future itself. At the same time, the static exposition of otherness “defutured” these cultures, not only in the minds of most visitors, but also in the imagination of many of the colonized, vanquishing possibility and agency over their future.

But what would it mean to defuture the future of cultural modernity and Western civilization? One answer lies in the rise of Afrofuturist liberatory discourse and practice. Mark Dery, who coined the term Afrofuturism, asks:
Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers—white to a man—who have engineered our collective fantasies? The “semiotic ghosts” of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Frank R. Paul’s illustrations for Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, the chromium-skinned, teardrop-shaped household appliances dreamed up by Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and Disney’s Tomorrowland still haunt the public imagination, in one capitalist, consumerist guise or another.7

To take away the future is not simply a matter of active suppression; it can also be the consequence of design itself. Just as acts of design make the future, they can also unmake other futures. Consider, for instance, the way the design of the automobile affected the design of many other things (landscapes, highways, cities, homes) and led to certain consequences (air pollution, traffic accidents, ride sharing, climate change) that in turn foreclosed other futures. Cameron Tonkinwise has affirmed that “design futures; it makes certain futures materially possible and likely. But in so doing, it can defuture, limiting the number of futures we have now, and limiting the quality and quantity of the futures of those futures.”8

This notion of defuturing is borrowed from Tony Fry and his long quest to refocus attention not on sustainability per se, but on unsustainability writ large. As Fry aptly notes, “We need to remind ourselves that the future is never empty, never a blank space to be filled with the output of human activity. It is already colonised by what the past and present have sent to it. Without this comprehension, without an understanding of what is finite, what limits reign and what directions are already set in place, we have little knowledge of futures, either of those we need to destroy or those we need to create.”9Design’s propensity to defuture is rooted in its capacity to fulfill present wants with little attention to future needs.

Our need to invent the future, or to design it, is of relatively recent origin. Acts of invention and design underscore the human agency necessary to ground future-making in the here and now, a concept that emerged during the Enlightenment as conventional religious views receded enough for reason, individualism, and skepticism to advance. Studying Western cultures across history, the sociologist Fred (Frederik Lodewijk) Polak, in his epic two-volume treatise The Image of the Future, chronicled the transformation in how the future has been envisioned from ancient times to the twentieth century. According to Polak, for millennia the strongest image of the future was conceived of mostly in otherworldly terms, in religious prophecies that were to be realized in the afterlife. This changed over time, with images of the future increasingly constituted on this side of the ethereal divide, most often in the form of utopian proposals—a pursuit of paradise here on Earth. But Polak saw in the twentieth century a marked rise in negative utopia and, uniquely, a dearth of images of the future compelling enough to instigate its realization: “Our time is the first in the memory of man which has produced no images of the future, or only negative ones.”10 He concisely prophesized the consequence of such a lack of vision: “The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image of the future is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full blossom. Once the image of the future begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture cannot long survive.”11

Polak was writing in the 1950s and 1960s, having evaded the Nazis and survived World War II. He did not live to see the current state of affairs or the recently issued apocalyptic forecast for life on Earth if the factors contributing to human-induced climate change are not soon reversed.12The image of the future today is one of the end of life and civilization as we know it—not as a religious reckoning from God, but as a result of human actions. Polak’s prediction for the end of Western civilization through a historically unprecedented lack of images of the future now seems sadly prescient.

Paradoxically, today we seem to be awash in a sea of images about the future. Billionaires plan for life on Mars. Scientists contemplate terraforming Earth. Technologists ponder the Singularity. Our images of the future are, perhaps appropriately, post-human and post-nature. They are by turns pessimistic and optimistic, fateful and fanciful. Although decidedly futuristic, such images of the future are survivalist strategies and presumptive forecasts. They are the future posing as today’s speculative solutions to yesterday’s wicked problems. It is telling that inhabiting a faraway planet with a hostile environment is somehow easier to imagine than a future here on Earth that requires changing our thinking, behaviors, and priorities. The increasing anthropocentrism that centuries ago allowed us the agency to envision our own futures has delivered its endgame in the Anthropocene. Polak would likely not see such apocalyptic visions as images of the future, which, as he describes, “picture another world in another time radically different from and, in being vastly ameliorated or even approaching perfection, which is absolutely preferable to the present one of the here-and-now.”13 For Polak, images of the future contain the seeds of a progressive perfection of the human condition. Perhaps, then, they are not really images at all but something more sweeping, visions in the broadest sense—grand narratives that usher in a more perfect future. Such visions by their nature are blue-sky prophecies and cannot yet depict the mundane reality of a future lived in the weeds. Images, on the other hand, like design itself, try to convince us with their detail and verisimilitude. They are like props for a script about the future in which we are invited to play along. At best, they give us only a convincing slice of the future with the greatest possible detail. Provocatively, Polak considered images of the future to be “powerful time-bombs” created by people and societies with “little control over when, where and how they will explode.”14 Thus the future is neither predictable nor controllable; in short, it is not designable in conventional terms.

Polak’s concept of defuturizing, like Fry’s, also describes the foreclosure of futures, but through a stubborn presentness:
We mean by the term [defuturizing] a retreat from constructive thinking about the future in order to dig oneself into the trenches of the Here-and-Now. It is a ruthless elimination of future-centered idealism by today-centered realism, an elimination of all thinkers about the future as poets and dreamers who are out of tune with the times. What the world really needs, we keep hearing, is realists, and above all realistic politicians; also specialists, social engineers, organizers, builders, architects, regional planners, managing directors and general staffs.15

Here Polak is evoking a criticism typical of his time, namely, that Western society was an increasingly technocratic operation governed by scientific pragmatism and bureaucratic management techniques. Polak seems to suggest that one group of people, these specialized technocrats, have displaced another group, the poets and dreamers, as the traditional gatekeepers of visions of the future. When Polak states that a “today-centered realism” dismisses those who seek to envision the future as “poets and dreamers who are out of tune with the times,” this asynchronicity implies a potentially different problem.

In his 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand cites the work of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson to support what Brand would eventually call “pace layering”: the interactions among faster and slower segments of civilization as they shape our understanding of change over time. Brand draws on Dyson’s analogous articulation of six unique time scales to which humans are bound:
The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales. But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales. On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales.16

Like Dyson, Brand also describes six layers, each tied to its own durational schema. But while Dyson describes something universal and eternal, Brand articulates a systems approach to the endurance of civilizations. For Brand, a robust and resilient civilization is able to absorb shocks to its system through a process of both fast-moving and slow-moving “pace layers”:

I propose six significant levels of pace and size in the working structure of a robust and adaptable civilization. From fast to slow the levels are:
• Fashion/art
• Commerce
• Infrastructure
• Governance
• Culture
• Nature

In a healthy society each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, safely sustained by the slower levels below and kept invigorated by the livelier levels above.17

In theory, all these layers interact with and influence each other in a complex system. But Brand believes that each layer is most influenced or balanced by the layers immediately adjacent to it. Thus the churn at the fastest level, fashion/art, is governed most by the pace of commerce, which is itself constrained by the pace of infrastructure (education, science, etc.), which is in turn regulated by the pace of governance. Cultural change comes more slowly than change in the layers above it, while nature seems nearly unchanging. Each layer provides checks and balances against imbalance in the overall system and operates at its own pace, whether measured in weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, or eons. Whether fast or slow, according to Brand, each speed has its own advantages: “Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.”18

Following Brand’s logic, what Polak identified is an imbalance in the system that sustains a healthy or growing civilization. For Polak, “images of the future” are a barometer of the health of a civilization, and their quality and power depend on their capacity to conjure a compelling vision, if there are any visionaries left in society at all. For Brand, the notion of a healthy civilization rests on a system able to balance its interdependent layers.

What do we make of the future today? As all of human civilization, not simply one tribe or nation, hangs in the balance, it is a slow but powerful nature that is attempting to regulate the system that sustains us all. Brand’s statement that “it is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health”19 means we can look to nature, its change sustained over millennia, as a possible corrective to the problems of an unyielding culture. Might, then, fashion/art and the other upper pace layers be able to positively influence the slowest and most powerful layers of civilization? It seems that what is needed now, more than ever, are images of the future—those images Polak could not find—that can act as “powerful time-bombs.” I believe the cycles of influence need to be reversed, however, with the long and the slow compelling the short and the fast. We need to defuse those time bombs set in motion decades or centuries ago.

If today’s dire forecasts for the end of the world as we once knew it hold true, then civilization has been defutured by an all-powerful nature. Given that sobering forecast, our images of the future today are not time bombs awaiting some distant detonation—for that future has already been unwinding—but should be prescriptions for defusing a future we know we do not want, but are certain now is coming. ▪︎  

ANDREW BLAUVELT is director of the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and curator-at-large for the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Prior to these positions he was senior curator of design, research, and publishing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where he served for seventeen years, organizing numerous exhibitions and leading various print and online publishing and audience-engagement initiatives.

Text and compilation © 2019 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, and The Art Institute of Chicago
  1. Fred L. Polak, The Image of the Future: Enlightening the Past, Orienting the Present, Forecasting the Future, vol. 2, Iconoclasm of the Images of the Future, Demolition of Culture, trans. Elise Boulding (Leyden: A. W. Sythoff, 1961), 101.
  2. Susan Yelavich, introduction to Design as Future-Making, ed. Yelavich and Barbara Adams (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 12.
  3. Clive Dilnot, “Reasons to be Cheerful, 1, 2, 3. …* (Or Why the Artificial May Yet Save Us),” in Design as Future-Making, 185.
  4. Paul Greenhalgh, Fair World: A History of World’s Fairs and Expositions, from London to Shanghai, 1851–2010(Berkshire, UK: Papadakis, 2011), 11.
  5. See Greenhalgh, “Designing an Ephemeral World,” in Fair World, 193–235.
  6. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
  7. Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180.
  8. Cameron Tonkinwise, “Design Away,” in Design as Future-Making, 204.
  9. Tony Fry, A New Design Philosophy: An Introduction to Defuturing (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999), 11–12.
  10. Polak, “Timeless Time,” in The Image of the Future, 2:89.
  11. Polak, “The Image of the Future and the Actual Future,” in The Image of the Future, vol. 1, The Promised Land, Source of Living Culture, 49–50; italics in the original.
  12. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC Approved by Governments,” United Nations, Geneva, October 8, 2018, www.ipcc.ch.
  13. Polak, “The Image of the Future and the Actual Future,” 1:38.
  14. Polak, “The Image of the Future and the Actual Future,” 1:38.
  15. Polak, “De-Utopianizing,” in The Image of the Future, 2:31.
  16. Freeman Dyson, From Eros to Gaia (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 341; quoted in Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 35; see also Brand, “Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning,” Journal of Design and Science 3: Resisting Reduction (January 17, 2018; rev. February 4, 2018), jods.mitpress.mit.edu.
  17. Brand, The Clock of the Long Now, 35–36.
  18. Brand, The Clock of the Long Now, 34.
  19. Brand, The Clock of the Long Now, 39.

︎︎︎ Berlin, 2022

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