What do you think the future will look like in fifty years?
That was a question from the stack of discussion starters my partner and I keep by the dinner table for nights when our days have been too long to recount and the thought of additional noise from the radio seems absurd. I figure I get the gist: “Decades from now,” the question asks readers to debate, “what will the world look like?” And thus ensues a bit of armchair extrapolation.
But the question’s specific wording opens onto what I think is a much more interesting line of thought. It asks not what the world will look like decades from now but what the future will look like decades from now. Read this way, then, the question might be asking: “Fifty years from now, how will people regard the future?” or “What will the prevailing attitude toward the future be in 2050?”
That’s a thought experiment familiar to vaporwave artists and fans, because vaporwave not only espouses the idea that the future can be different but also forces recognition that the way we feel about the future can be different, too—that “the future” as an object of popular understanding and collective investment is volatile and overdetermined.
Sure, vaporwave evokes that familiar kind of tongue-in-cheek, where’s-my-jetpack indignation that the future isn’t all it was made out to be. But I don’t need vaporwave to experience the future’s arrival with blasé mundanity. I can get a taste of that simply by reflecting on so many aspects of my daily life and considering how the ostensibly wonderful has become ordinary. Last week I opened portals on my desktop computer to see, hear, and speak with friends and colleagues in Japan, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and United States, and Germany. I did it so much it exhausted me. And when I was done with that, I stayed in the same place to watch a robot land on Mars. Vaporwave clearly taps that familiar shoulder-shrugging indifference we tend to feel in the face of the future’s unimpressive arrival. But as we hear in voiceovers from this track by videofasion, this sentiment isn’t new or unique to the contemporary cultural moment. Disappointment with the future we got is an all-too-common trope in the global West. “The 1980s. This was supposed to be the Space Age!”
Vaporwave, however, critiques not just a certain vision of the future but a particular notion of futurity, the idea that the future is inevitably a space of possibility or hope. It interrogates that tenuous link between technology and progress, lays bare the uneasy and manufactured relationship between them. Vaporwave’s penchant for techno-utopianism, while undoubtedly ironic and critical, nevertheless can’t help its own barely stifled enthusiasm. It’s grasping, however, not for an irretrievable future but rather for a past when the future looked different. Because in September of 2001—when a persuasive (and pervasive) view of the future shattered, and the alternate timeline vaporwave betokens snapped shut—the future suddenly didn’t look like it did 50 years ago; it was a broken, daunting, unrecognizable thing.
For me, then, vaporwave is about more than the future’s failed promises. It’s about our own failures in assuming the future promised us something in the first place.
Pairs well with: Your fifth ride on the Carousel of Progress.