Apparently, I wasn’t quite done with the Cloud Atlas inspiration of my last post. In continuing with that post on science fiction making the future permissible in our conscious thought, I might consider another element of science fiction and art depicting the future, that of a reliance on structure. I have noticed that much modern science fiction (visualized in film or art) or any depiction of the future tends to rely on architectural structure to project the ‘future-ness’ of the composition. In short, we imagine the future and the first thing we imagine is the architectural structure of that future. The geography of our future societies is perhaps more readily visible than the future interaction and composition of those societies.

I don’t want to make the case that this is due to a lack of imagination to our artists in regards to the future. I am intentionally isolating the visual away from the textual descriptions of science fiction. I just can’t fail to notice that we visually imagine our futures

  • structurally-architecturally
  • generally dystopian

Nothing wrong with this approach, but I believe it projects more about our current composition as humans rather than some future rendition of society. I suspect there are a few different reasons why this is the case, some of which I will highlight below. Please note that the websites hosting these images can be found by clicking on the images here.

Structure is easier than social composition

It is easier to suspect that buildings will continue to grow taller, that transportation will continue to expand in structured ways, and that society will grow and grow (until we hit the post-apocalyptic bit in much science fiction). This is a general trend that has been happening for thousands of years. So cityscapes, these geographies of perception and containers of action, will continue to frame our worldview. Much of my current perception of Seoul is that view from my apartment, the framing of the skyline lends action towards one direction or the other. A mountain here, an overpass there, a building over there, and my day is constructed through the navigation of diminished choice. There are only so many directions to go once I leave my building. This is how we shape our lives and it makes sense that projecting a futuristic cityscape would be a means of containing activity close enough to predict it. A useful tool for controlling change.

What interests me is how that structure has evolved based on the needs of the community it supports. Not only does it guide and dictate behavior to some degree (only so many ways to get from Point A to Point B) but it supports community practice. How people interact, what they want, what they need, what they do when thwarted from that need. The pathos of social structure. I would love to see more of the particulars of social composition as projected a hundred years from now.

Structure is an attempt to imprint the future with a certain direction

I also see perpetual depictions of the structure of the future as a race to imprint the future with a particular composition or even direction. I take this view because I am beginning to learn the nature of change. I used to believe that the past happened because it had to happen; that was its only path. This isn’t true; there are millions of potential realities looming in the future. Choosing one doesn’t exclude the possibility that there were others. More importantly, it also re-emphasizes the nature of choice in the crafting of the future. One consequence of one activity can tip scales in unforeseen directions and alter direction considerably.

Some historical events had some inalterable momentum; they were just going to happen and most of those tend to be based on the biological realities of life and death. However, much of what we know as history was derived from very intimate decisions. A thousand small decisions of the present have considerable impact on the future. This is the inviolability of choice; it is an action of empowerment for both the individual, the present and future society. History is laden with these ‘what if?” scenarios so I won’t recite them here. But choice does affect outcome. History is the confluence of when, what, how, and why. Hence the present is the progenitor of the future.

So depictions of the future foregrounding highly structural visuals is an attempt to cast that perception of the future onto the future itself. Predictions, if repeated enough, become mantras. Mantras are the drivers of collective human will. Subconsciously and collectively, we will be casting our futures using the predictions of the present. A bold plan, all things being equal, trumps everything else.

This is the role of science fiction as both prophet and architect. It announces a potential future and begins constructing it. I see a reliance on structure in future depictions as an extension of that.

In the future, biology still exists

This is a small point, but I find it highly suspect that a world of the future will regulate biology to the greenhouse and not allow it to perpetuate in open space. This is a highly volatile assumption as space and resource constraints might dictate otherwise, but I see our future (as I am starting to see events in our present) as a general migration back towards nature, not further away from it. A merging of our collective futures. So, I struggle with dystopian futures where the world is always dark, where metal dominates every view, where life itself as personified by structure seems in decay. I highly suspect there will be light and there will be green. Hence, my enjoyment of this image below depicting green and water. How novel.


By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

36 thoughts on “Artistic Depictions of the Future: Structure as Prophet and Architect”
  1. This has been a beautifully written blog regarding the future. It bears re-reading more than once to understand the depth of its message and observations. I am very impressed with the style of writing. A form of writing that renderes thinking at many levels. The part of the future that I see happening, renders the core of our human lives to a darker place, is our actual physical communications with each other, which will soon become a lost gift and art. It seems the inner sharing we have done so beautifully in the past is disappearing, and what makes us human is becoming a non-reality. The differences in our daily lives between the real world before us and a fantasy world is now becoming a thin line.

    1. Many thanks, John, for the compliment and the encouragement. As for human communication skills, I suspect they are migrating elsewhere (online or otherwise), but the role of physical interpersonal communication in our daily lives is perhaps diminishing, much to our loss.

      I appreciate what you point to as a process that this blurring of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ is making humanness something of a non-reality. I might suggest, just as a counterpoint, that this is an evolution of what humanness actually encompasses. I think there is a fusion/balance to be had between the imaginary and the real (which are both essentially real). We can read the real as an enactment of the imaginary (perhaps conceptual is better than imaginary in my explanation?). But communication as we know it is certainly transforming itself; whether or not this is a positive is a matter of that transformation is manipulated to serve need.

      Thanks again, John!

  2. I’m not sure what I’ll look like. Part of me suspects that while affluent cities like Boston and New York will continue to transform their former industrial sites and transportation links into green spaces (see: the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the High Line), poorer places across the world will face some manner of dystopia.

    In the United States, I imagine a time fifty years from now when prohibitively inefficient suburbs and regions (e.g., Napierville, IL and Phoenix, AZ) are abandoned and weeds shoot through the shopping malls. While most people will have opted for denser, more communal living near the city center, a splinter population of right-wing and left-wing fanatics will have gone underground in the half-sunken remains of small town America.

    1. ” I imagine a time fifty years from now when prohibitively inefficient suburbs and regions (e.g., Napierville, IL and Phoenix, AZ) are abandoned and weeds shoot through the shopping malls”

      I do as well and we will probably need to embrace that process as positive. Nature will reclaim space as nature abhors a vacuum. Something will fill that which has been abandoned. I don’t feel that is an inherently negative process. What it does to the human population in terms of density or sparsity is another question altogether, as you suggest.

    1. Jeff, much appreciated. I wasn’t familiar with this document but it is a perfect illustration of a biologically influenced design, one that still contours to human and biological need, to aesthetics, to inspiration. Many thanks as I suspect I will be referring to this document often.

      1. Our concious thoughts have a way of shaping the world around us. Hopefully humanity will begin to realize that more and we will work towards a brighter future so to speak.

    1. No, I agree with you. I refuse to pigeonhole or condemn Blade Runner in any way whatsoever. It stands alone as incredible. I know the revelation of that movie at the time was who was human and who wasn’t, but when I watch it now I think that isn’t the issue. They are all alive and aware.

  3. I enjoy and write my own science-fiction, and appreciate when I come across information and speculation like this. It’s always good to challenge our pre-conceived notions of what “the future” will look like, while looking at the current trends and extending them to extremes in the future.

    One reason why architecture is such a dominant sign of the future is one picture can show the audience they’re in a different space. Really brilliant future-design, like Blade Runner, as someone mentioned above, can evoke a time, place, and society in a few images. Setting can often tell us a lot about the culture before even meeting a character.

    1. Good point about architecture as a narrative device; it instantly signals intent to audience. The setting also adds to the dystopian nature of the presentation by placing the organic human at odds with their surroundings, out of sync. Adds to that alienation. A cautionary tale embedded in a narrative device. Godo points and many thanks for sharing them!

  4. you must remember the scene in Benjamin Button – where Brad Pitt explains the multitude of factors that sequentially converge – for her to have an accident that that very second ….

    1. Responded, and thanks for the framing here of the factors converging to lead to even an accident. Lots of truth with that and that is what makes ‘viral’ ideas so interesting. One never knows how they resonate or bounce through circumstance. Good stuff.

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