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Whatever Happened to the Future?

Pulp is the latest in a long list of 1990s bands with too-clever accountants and mortgages to service that are touring again. One of the Sheffield group's bigger hits was Disco 2000, a wry look at teen unrequited love and the hope of reunion when the millennium clocked over. Recorded in 1995, the song will take on an odd retro-futurism when it's performed this year - 11 years after the rendezvous deadline. Since this song bounced through Converse All Stars in the mid-90s we've stopped focusing on a point in the future as hopeful.

All through the 20th century, the year 2000 was something to aim for, a number that became synonymous with the futuristic, from the ABC TV science program Towards 2000 (which became Beyond 2000 then Beyond Tomorrow) to the British comic 2000AD. But the hope for the year 2000 became infected with the Millennium Bug as Y2K became something to fear. By 1999 Silverchair snarled in their Anthem for the Year 2000: "Never knew we were living in a world/ with a mind that could be so small". The shift from hope to betrayal was captured in the recent Threadless T-shirt which opines "This was supposed to be the future - where is my jetpack?"

So it's interesting to see the positive future making a comeback. The Future Timeline looks to capture predictions for the coming centuries including robot insects acting as spies and the disappearance of Nigeria's rainforests. And that's just the next ten years. Technology brings most of the good news - why jetpack when you can teleport? Good to hear that gay marriage will finally be legal in every US state and someone has finally cured the common cold. Okay, so the site is based on predictions but references point off to projects currently underway and some show long-term trends (like the fact that by 2015 more Americans will be in favour of gay marriage than against). And while there's terrifying tales of extinction, shortages and war, there is also hope.

Literature has long favoured dystopia when it looks into the crystal ball. The 20th century saw Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World, The Handmaiden's Tale and many more. In this millennium Cormac McCarthy recently limped out of the West to tell us just how grim the future is looking in The Road. So Jennifer Egan's approach to the future in 2010's A Visit From the Goon Squad has to sneak up us. The inter-connected short stories slouch through the 1990s into the post-millennium with the last few chapters tracing her characters into the future.

It's not a utopia by any means - mobile phones have become so essential even toddler text, viral marketing has become parroting and English has hollow words so "'American' had become an ironic term". But there's also hope. A girl tells the story of her brother's autism through a Powerpoint presentation (which has retro appeal in the future) and humanity is better connected. The music industry finds a younger audience and an unlikely folk hero. It's hopeful future as dirty and ragged as today.

The Long Now project saw the disappointment of the year 2000 coming. They set up in 1996 looking to shift people's vision beyond the next 5 years and think long term. Founder Danny Hillis explains it:
"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 02000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 02000, and now no one mentions a future date at all."
Jean Marc Côté's 1901 vision of the classroom in the Year 2000
They're so far forward looking at Long Now that they have five digit dates "to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years". Along with a project to make a clock designed for 10,000 years and never chime the same melody, they also have Long Bets. It encourage amateur futurists to bet on their own predictions with winnings being awarded to charity. Zeus Jones reckons that by 2020 historians will reach the consensus that the early 21st century was the start of the "Second" or "New Rennaissance". Let's see if he can't be proved right.