Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Longing for the future that was

In the New York Times Sunday Magazine this last week (Jun 13, 2014), Eric Schulmiller has an essay (paywall, probably) about our fondness for the visions in the past of what the future would look like. Unlike a lot of generally sour thinking in latter days about what the future holds (climate change, water shortages, "Blade Runner," Skynet), folks in the past often had a progressive view of what was in store for their grandchildren. As Schulmiller explains:
[I]n addition to our retreat into wishfulness, something else was brewing: a sense that the past was not only better than the present, but that the past’s predictions for the future were also better than what had actually become the present. No longer content to live in (or through) our memories of the past, we also yearned to live in the past’s vision of the future. We were nostalgic for yesterday’s prognostications.
Which he follows with:
You could say that we succumbed to prognostalgia.
The term is a portmanteau (prognostication+nostalgia). I don't love it as a word to say out loud, but it's a good combination, and it's hard not to like the way that it plays with chronological logic—indeed, the way that the title "Back to the Future" does, a movie around which Schulmiller crafts his essay. The concept is understood well enough; people are engaged in prognostalgia (ironically or otherwise) when they ask Where's my jetback? or cast fond thoughts onto the iconic tho short-lived Jetsons[1]:



Schulmiller does not claim in the essay that he invented this term. The blogger "Prog Nostal" has a blog named Prognostalgia that first appeared on June 8—that is, less than a week before Schulmiller's essay appeared. (We might be able to assume that Schulmiller had by then already penned his essay.) Blogger Prognos describes the process that he went through to arrive at prognostalgia and his proposed definition, which he promptly put up on Urban Dictionary:
Prognostalgia: "Longing for a predicted future for either selfish or utopian ideals."
It's not the first, tho. Back in 2009, the blogger Chris Adams wrote about how well ads by AT&T predicted the future. He doesn't use the term prognostalgia, but he links to a now-defunct entry on the RealityPrime site that suggests that Avi Bar-Zeev once wrote about the term. But for now the trail goes cold here.

I guess I'm doing my bit here to give the term some legs. The next time someone mentions jetpacks or taking vacations on the moon, tell them they're engaged in prognostalgia and let's get that term out there!

[1] There's a surprising (to me) number of pages on the web devoted to studying how accurately "The Jetsons" portrayed the future.




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