Postrel on Shiny Futures

I recently explained why The Future Seems Shiny:

Since we expect far away things to have less detail, we tend to imagine themwindturbine with fewer parts and flourishes, and less detailed textures and patterns. The future is not paisley. And in fact, if you Goggle “futuristic style” images, you’ll tend to see images like those in this post – simple, smooth, cool, blue, and sky/spacy. In a word, “shiny.”

Virginia Postrel elaborates on how this distorts policy:

When Robert J. Samuelson … [argued] that high-speed rail is “a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause,” he … [calculated] that even the rosiest scenarios wouldn’t justify the investment. He made a good, rational case—only to have it completely undermined by the evocative photograph … to accompany the article.

The picture showed a sleek train bursting through blurred lines of track and scenery, the embodiment of elegant, effortless speed. … It was beautiful, manipulative and deeply glamorous. The same is true of photos of wind turbines adorning ads. … These graceful forms have succeeded the rocket ships and atomic symbols of the 1950s to become the new icons of the technological future. …

Glamour always contains an element of illusion. … It offers an escape from the compromises, flaws and distractions of real life. It shows no bills on the kitchen counter, no blisters under the high heels, no pimples on the movie star’s face. In those glamour shots, wind power seems clean, free and infinitely abundant. Turbines spin silently … The sky is unfailingly photogenic, … The landscape is both empty and beautiful. … The image of a speeding train, meanwhile, invites you to imagine taking it when and where you want, with no waiting, no crowds and no expensive tickets … no visible source of fuel. …

For at least some technophiles, in fact, the trains and windmills are goods in and of themselves, with climate change providing a reason to force the development and adoption of cool new machines that wouldn’t otherwise catch on. … The problems come, of course, in the things glamour omits, including all those annoyingly practical concerns the policy wonks insist on debating.

It seems that [at least one key kind of] glamour is far. Glamour presents a simplified idealized image, which appeals most when thinking about the glamorous object from a distance.  Such images tend to be targeted at observers who are socially far, and often physically far.

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  • anon

    “The picture showed a sleek train bursting through blurred lines of track and scenery, the embodiment of elegant, effortless speed. … It was beautiful, manipulative and deeply glamorous. The same is true of photos of wind turbines adorning ads.”

    Make up your mind please. Are windmills/high-speed railways glamorous and futuristic, or are they unaesthetic and intrusive on natural landscape? These cannot be both true.

    • …I don’t think you’re reading very carefully. Robin nowhere says that rails & turbines won’t be intrusive & ugly, and seems to agree with Samuelson & Postrel that they are not so good as they seem – but we fail to realize this because of Far propaganda omitting the negatives (the details) and depicting only simple positives.

  • John Judge

    Postrel (and Robin) may have a point, but the comparison to wind turbines isn’t very apt IMHO. High speed rail may be ‘far’ and be depicted in detail-omitting or detail-obscuring ways, but wind turbines already exist all over the place. I see tons of them driving through rural Pennsylvania. And they look pretty much exactly the way the do in photos (granted, usually with cloudy gray sky in the background). If people think high speed rail is glamorous, that may very well be starry-eyed wishful thinking, but people who find wind turbines attractive aren’t dreaming of the future, they’re simply looking out the window. Just ask my kids – they think the turbines look cool and they’re not old enough to have any idea what the turbines are for. As far as they’re concerned, the turbines are just another landmark to break up a long car trip – nothing ‘far mode’ about that.

    • The claim isn’t that people’s visual images of wind turbines lack important visual detail. Rather, the fact that wind turbines happen to be sleek and shiny, with less detail in their images, make them fit our ideal image of future stuff. This makes us assume they should be a part of our future, and subsidize them, even when a harder analysis suggests they will are not very helpful at improving our future.

      • John Judge

        Fair enough… support for wind turbines may certainly be biased by the way the look (as if they’re from the future). I was responding more to Postrel’s use of the terms ‘glamour’ and ‘illusion.’ When my kids think wind turbines look cool, it’s not anyone’s glamorized, manipulative version they’re looking at, it’s actual turbines. And as far as my kids know, those turbines have always been there.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        Agreed – btw, for an interesting fictional take on the subject, see The_Gernsback_Continuum

  • Buck Farmer

    Counterexample: The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian Hapsburg

    This was a woodblock designed as propaganda to promote the House of Hapsburg and in particular Maximilian’s claims and descent from the ancient Roman Emperors, etc.

    Other complex propaganda: Coats of arms, all baroque religious art, Versailles…

    It would be hard to argue that this detail and complexity was designed to make the subject-matter seem more “real” or more “down-to-earth.” In fact the intricacy was designed to glamourize and promote the majesty, wealth, etc. of the subject.

    I think your identification of {glamour = future = simple = blue = far} is very much a Western 20th-21st Century idea that would not hold up across time and cultures. While it is true that art and style have gone through periods of simplification in the past, they also experienced periods of complexification.

    • I didn’t mean to speak to all kinds of glamour, and added a bracketed qualifier to the post re that.

      • Buck Farmer

        Your bracketed qualifier implies that these counter-examples are near forms of glamour.

        You summarize near/far here:

        I don’t think any of these examples count as:

        “low power/status…theory/trend breaking…common likely real local events…incidental features…conflicted secondary local practical concerns…unstable traits in small groups”

        In fact your “far” counterparts seem more appropriate:

        “high power/status…theory/trend following…rare unlikely global events…goal related features…coherent central global symbolic ideal…stable traits in big groups”

        To add another counterexample from a completely separate culture:

        Northern Song-dynasty landscape paintings. These were largely court-sponsored works of propaganda designed to demonstrate the harmonious complexity of an integrated state-society. This matched the adoption of Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucianism as the state philosophy (see the policies of Wang An Shi).

        The most exemplary example of this highly detailed, complex, and layered painting style is Guo Xi’s Early Spring.

  • dave

    I find it really hard to believe a DC/NYC/Boston and SD/LA/SF line for high speed rail wouldn’t work. I personally would pay more then I pay at the airport not to deal with security lines and flight delays.

    • IVV


      Would an actually realized high-speed rail system, even in these corridors, not have security lines or schedule delays? We’ve seen terrorist attacks on trains in other countries. For something requiring the level of investment of high-speed rail, the TSA might somehow get involved. As for schedule delays, that requires coordination independent of the tech required for HSR. If we have trouble now with our trains, what will change to prevent it in the future?

      • dave

        In Japan I ride those exact trains. They are always on time and they have no security line. Its been that way for decades, this isn’t rocket science.

  • RJB

    Is the distant past equally far? Is there any inherent time asymmetry in past and future? Do we envision the future as blue and clean because we expect it to involve more metal and sterility, rather than because it is far? I think of the distant past as being rather brown and smelly.

  • Matt

    Hmmm. Any examples where apparently baroque and complex or stationery machinery or technology has been less funded than it would appear it should have been?

  • arch1

    Is there an attractively profitable way for individuals to bet against (thereby tending to reduce) such policy distortions?

  • IVV


    Although I agree that examples exist today that allow for this ideal circumstance in Japan (and other countries), can we be so sure that the regulation and oversight will be duplicated in the USA?

    I would argue that it is possible, but politically unlikely. In particular, this is a prime example of the “shiny future” state of HSR in America that may or may not exist in reality once implemented.

    Actually, this may be a corollary of the “shiny future” problem. Even if it exists right now, in other circumstances, doesn’t mean that it can exist in the same form in different circumstances. Kind of like the “Sweden works because it’s full of Swedes” idea.

  • What do you think accounts for the distinctly un-shiny sci-fi aesthetic that dominated the Alien and original Star Wars series? It roughly seems to correlate with negative aspects. The Alien future was dystopic, and I seem to remember Empire vehicles and tech as somehow more crude than the rebellion’s machinery (and featuring lots of pipes and conduits).

  • Heh. I’m a sysadmin. I expect to be in work as long as I want to be. Because Mel Brooks nailed it in Spaceballs:

    “Fuck! Even in the future, nothing works!”

  • ZZMike

    One problem (of many) with high-speed rail is that our railbeds have deteriorated. (Another is that freight trains take precedence – Amtrak trains have to give way.)

    From Wiki: “Passenger trains are limited to 59 mph and freight trains to 49 mph on track without block signal systems.”

    In the Northeast Corridor, passenger trains are allowed to go up to 150 mph. The speed record was set in 1967 [!], 170 mph.

    But without a massive investment in infrastructure rebuilding, high-speed rail is still a way off.

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