Future Schlock

Back to the Future II got a lot wrong about the world of 2015—but it got the most important thing very, very right.

Universal Studios
This morning, I got an email. It was from Frontier Airlines. Its subject was “Great Scott! $20.15 Fares,” and it informed me that, if I book a flight by October 21, 2015, I can avail myself of fares starting at $20.15* (*one-way, seats are limited, restrictions apply). It also announced that—again, if I book by October 21—I can use the code GR8SCOTT at checkout to take 50 percent off* my next flight (*for nonstop travel, Fridays and Sundays excluded, seats are limited, restrictions apply). As Frontier put it, chirpily: “Time to McFly!”

#Brands, am I right? But Frontier is by no means the only business to get in on today’s Back to the Future action. Oreo, because Oreo, has a thing. So does Target. So does Skype. So does the White House. Reston, Virginia has, for the day, named itself Hill Valley. And that’s not to mention all the media coverage. (The Guardian is actually liveblogging the day.) It’s all for good reason: Back to the Future, the whole franchise, is fun! And this day—the day Marty and Doc visited in the 1989 sequel to the 1985 original—is literally the only one that will ever exist. The #brands, just like the rest of us, are seizing the Back to the Future Day.

And that’s because, of course, today’s secular holy day allows us the nerdy fun of comparing BTTF’s vision of 2015 to the one that we are currently living. It’s a more lighthearted version of the comparisons we did, for example, to mark the dawning of the 2014 that Isaac Asimov predicted in 1964 (or, even more lightheartedly, to mark the fortunate inaccuracy of the calendar that predicted “the Mayan apocalypse”). Predictions, whether failed or fulfilled, give us occasion to assess how far we’ve come—and how far we have, still, to go.
So then! With that in mind! Here’s what Back to the Future II got mostly right: video goggles (Google Glass), screens that allow for video teleconferencing (Skype), digital payment devices, facial recognition technology, fax machines, drones. And here’s what Back to the Future II most famously got wrong: hoverboards.
But the movie also, in its way, missed the very thing that allowed Back to the Future Day to became a thing in the first place: the Internet! And the Internet, importantly, not just in the sense of the thick fiber-optic cables that lay at the bottom of the ocean, or of the megaservers that reside at locations around the globe, or of personal computers or Internet browsers or the mobile web. Back to the Future missed, more than anything, the human implications of the digital world: the kind of networked culture that the Internet occasioned. It missed social networking. It missed tech utopianism. It missed our widespread tendency to treat technology—to treat innovation itself—as a kind of secular religion.
It missed, in other words, the McLuhan-esque notion that “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance summed it up, perfectly: “Considering what we can do with today’s technology, the 2015 of Back to the Future II seems downright old-school.”
Back to the Future II was produced during the tail end of the Reagan presidency, and released at the height of Wall Street’s (and Wall Street’s) influence on American culture: a time when the public had already forgotten the irony intended in the nihilistic declaration that “greed is good.” It offers, appropriately, a distinctly commercialized vision of the future. In the film’s cosmology, progress has been made via, specifically, stuff: all those hoverboards and drones and screens. There’s a commercial inevitability to the whole thing. But at the same time there’s a kind of cultural inertia. People’s stuff gets snazzier; the people themselves, however, remain the same. The 2015 of Back to the Future II is 1989, basically, with more neon. Humans have shaped their tools; the tools have done extremely little, however, to shape them.
And that, in some sense, is what Back to the Future II got very much right in its rendering of 2015: the commercialism at the heart of our alleged technological utopia. Its assumption that technical change is not primarily cultural in nature, but commercial. The film is packed with product placements from Pizza Hut and Pepsi and other brands that have endured from the late ’80s. Marty happens upon a theater (a “Holomax”) screening Jaws 19 (“This Time It’s REALLY REALLY Personal”). And there are, of course, those iconic Nikes. The future is there, and it’s been brought about through things you can buy at the mall.
Which is also to say that Back to the Future II foresaw, in its way, what today’s Back to the Future Day celebrations have in large part become: excuses for brands to sell us things.
Back to the Future Day coincides, roughly, with the 45th anniversary of the printing of Future Shock, which remains one of the most influential works out there about the various disruptions occasioned by “disruptive technology.” The book, today remembered largely for its diagnosis of the human anxieties associated with technological change—it coined the phrase “information overload,” among others, and defined “future shock” as “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time—was in fact extremely bullish on technology. Not in the tech-utopian sense, but in the broader sense of the sheer inevitability of technological change. Commercial products will be improved, inevitably; disruption will be endured, inevitably. “The book,” Hal Niedzviecki puts it, “takes the horrible anxiety underlying the modern techno-obsessed capitalist state and makes it alright.”
So, in its way, does Back to the Future II, which promises the very thing that history has so often disproved: that we are in control of our technologies, rather than vice versa. That the future—The Future™—is a kind of collective, commercial product like any other. A place you can, if you have the right equipment, travel to. A place that is soothingly inevitable. A place that contains both 2015 and $20.15. GR8SCOTT, how prescient.