“I have seen the future” (in 1939)

This button is a souvenir from General Motor’s Futurama, a utopian (or perhaps “autopian”) diorama of an automobile- centric American landscape of 1960, displayed at the 1939 New York World’s fair. “I have seen the future” — for fairgoers, it was a confident and optimistic assertion about a bright, upward spiraling tomorrow, but today, the pin shivers with unintended irony. Twenty years earlier, journalist Lincoln Steffens offered an equally optimistic statement, “I have seen the future, and it works” upon returning from Russia in 1919.

And of course, Russia didn’t “work”, our cities never came to resemble GM’s diorama, and GM hardly resembles GM any more, buffeted by the forces of globalization and its own gasoholic folly. “Futurama” eventually became the title of a 1990s cartoon futures parody, displayed on what was only a 1930s dream, television. General Motors recreated a new Futurama — and an updated button — for the 1964 World’s Fair, but by then the optimism was starting to wear thin, overshadowed by the Arms Race and fears of nuclear anniliation. Even in 1939, the phrase had a whistling-past-the-graveyard optimism to it, given what was happening in Europe that same year.

Events today are far less dark than back then, but no one is rushing to hand out such confident futurefacts as this button. Perhaps it is because as a society we are finally beginning to come to grips with uncertainty, Or perhaps it is simple superstition — it would not be wise to tempt the fates with such optimism in the face of an unnerving array of possible outcomes.