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When my brother was down from Brisbane recently we visited my parents and took the opportunity to go through the stuff in the shed. Both of us have, over the years, salvaged most of our treasured childhood loot but we still have many boxes stashed away. From among the school books, stamp collections and “licky-down books” we unearthed a 1979 Rigby Usborne publication entitled: The World of the Future: Future Cities by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis. The front page boasts of “Colonies in Space”, “Solar heated houses”, “Amazing sports” and “Wristwatch TV,” while the salient image is of a sizeable city on the moon, housed in three glass domes. This rather optimistic publication proved to be a time capsule in its own right and was great grist to the mill of one of my favourite subjects – past visions of the future.

1-future-cities-cover

This very idea of imagining how things will look in the future is a relatively recent concept. Most medieval Europeans looked more to the past and sighed at their small stature before the glories of Rome, while in East Asia at the same time, despite advanced technical innovation, societies looked inward, more interested in maintaining traditions than imagining a vastly different future. People certainly dreamed of greater prosperity, but this vision was likely just a wealthier version of the present society, without wholly new technologies and innovations.

It is only really since the late Renaissance and the industrial revolution that we have more broadly imagined the idea of a future in which societies were far more advanced technologically. There have long been people who thought up and, in some cases, implemented, radical social shifts, alongside more fantastical, idealistic utopias, but in recent times these ideas have become more wedded to technologies not yet invented or those in a nascent form which promised immense change. Our rate of technical advancement reached such an extreme in the 20th century that, in 1970, Alvin Toffler coined the term “Futureshock” in his book of the same title, which basically posited that humanity was experiencing a psychological condition of culture shock caused by “too much change in too short a period of time.” So accustomed did we become to the whirlwind of advancement and the expectation of radical societal shifts that we were able to imagine an entirely different world emerging within a single generation.

future-shock

These past visions of the future are fascinating in the way they reveal our inevitable naivety as much as our impressive ambition. They show us not only the overzealous hopes of our imagination, but also its limitations. How quaint and pathetic seems the idea of wrist-watch TV, compared to the miraculous multifunctionality of contemporary smart devices. Yet, how utterly ludicrous the idea of a city of ten thousand people orbiting the Earth is in contrast to the three astronauts presently occupying the International Space Station. As for solar-heated houses, at least they were right on this score. Though we may not yet live in a world where we all have solar panels on our roofs, it is a well-established technology with increasingly rapid uptake.

This last prediction sits with several other sensible and well-considered ideas, which are probably best illustrated in the double-spread “A House of the Future.”

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This suggests that future houses will rely increasingly on renewables, such as wind and solar; that our communications will increasingly take place via satellite; that we will be driving electric cars and that many home functions might be controlled by a central computer. While electric cars might be slowly arriving, what we now call “the internet of things” – the interconnection of practical electronic devices like fridges, washing machines, dryers, air conditioning – hasn’t really taken off, despite years of talk.

Over the page, the arrival of flat-screen, wall-mounted televisions is rightly predicted, though their date of the late 1980s is now recognisably far-fetched. The clunky “TV telephone,” the enormous home computer unit with its antiquated buttons and the drink-dispensing robot reveal, once again, the limitations of our imagination, most obvious in the total absence of anything like the internet.

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Whereas the “Risto” – a digital watch with unattractive antennae poking out on four sides – is promoted as a “wrist-watch, radio-telephone” that could be used for electronic voting, secure police communication and as a panic-button in emergencies. They also suggest that by “punching out an enquiry number” a lost person could “ask for guidance back to the nearest town.” While the idea that the Risto would rely on something similar to the GPS satellite array is certainly on the money, the inability to conceive of anything as all-encompassing as the internet, makes this all seem rather dull.

6-risto

Perhaps inevitably, the most glaring over-optimism in this book lies in our imagined future in space. Just as Bladerunner, made in 1983, expected much of humanity to be living in off-world colonies by 2019, so this book suggests that the 2020 Olympics might take place on the moon. Unfortunately for the dreamers of the past, the Tokyo games will be all too sublunary.

4-2020-olympics

The authors also posit a skyscraper that stretches all the way into space, with vast tubes up which people might travel in shuttles fired along see-through vacuum tubes; a city of 10, 000 people orbiting Earth in one of the gravitationally neutral Lagrange points; space-shuttle refuelling stations; a huge city on the moon with an already well-established industrial sector firing materials into space to build further orbital cities. It goes without saying that none of this has happened, not even remotely.

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I’ve written elsewhere about how long I expect it will be before any significant human presence is established outside of the Earth – more likely hundreds of years than decades. Sure, a long-desired observatory on the far side of the moon might be possible, and maybe we’ll see five or six people on Mars, but none of this is likely to happen before the second half of the 21st century and, even then, at a stretch. It must be noted however that my projections are based on current levels of investment and the rate of realisation of necessary technologies, whereas, coming off the crest of the Moonshot and Space Race, had the levels of funding that went into the Apollo program been sustained, I suspect we’d at least have several larger space stations orbiting the Earth by now and some sort of minor, token presence on the moon. None of these, however, would be even remotely on the scale proposed in this book.

Probably the most silly idea of all, despite coming initially from Carl Sagan, is that of seeding Venus with bacteria and algae to feed on the carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases that blanket the planet, eventually producing enough oxygen to cause water-rain to fall. “It will not get as far as the surface, boiling to steam before it gets there,” say the authors. “But each time it rains, surface temperatures drop a little.” Eventually, they suggest, increasingly heavy rain will scrub the noxious gases from the atmosphere and allow a more Earth-like climate to develop there. I love this idea, but it seems little more than a pipe-dream, as is evident when taking into account all the other problems we would face in making Venus even remotely habitable. Carl Sagan himself later shot down his own plan, in the wake of a more sophisticated understanding of Venus’ atmosphere.

Finally, though it appears relatively early in the book, there is a double spread which posits two possible futures for the inhabitants of Earth – the “Garden city on a cared-for planet” or the “polluted city of a dying world.”

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I’d like to think that, in the developed world at least, we are moving increasingly towards the garden city idea, but the stubborn persistence in burning fossil fuels, the scale of the human population, the stupidity of post-truth polities who repeatedly elect neo-conservative capitalists intent on burning up the entire planet in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe, makes that future very uncertain indeed. The authors were indeed right about one thing – that it is advancements in technology and increasingly clean and efficient practices which will ensure a better future for us all. I salute their positive vision of a cleaner, greener Earth, which is, in many ways, coming true at a grass-roots level if not at the all-important level of government. Fingers-crossed, the worst-case scenarios of our present visions of the future won’t come to pass, and several decades from now, we’ll be able to chuckle at those pictures of a stifling, suffering world of hunger, conflict and inequality.

Evora, Portugal, August 27, 2007

Evora, Portugal, August 27, 2007

Before going travelling, I always used to say to myself – “Beware Day One.” On the first day of a trip, I was prone to screwing up at least once. This might be something relatively minor, such as forgetting to grab my phone charger on the way out or a bigger inconvenience like messing up a transport connection. The first day was always a hard slog as I’d invariably had an early flight, almost no sleep, and was not yet “travel-fit”. By this I mean that instinctive, hyper-awareness about everything that is a great boon to the experienced traveller. My first and only visit to Evora was one such example of a first-day screw-up, when, after a very long day – flying on no sleep from chilly London into 38 degree Seville heat, wandering for hours, then catching a late afternoon bus to Evora – I didn’t get off at the right stop and sailed on into the next town. By the time I got on another bus going back the other way, an hour had passed and I arrived in Evora well after sunset.

This might all seem rather trivial, but considering I only had time to stay in Evora for one night, I was gutted that I would not be able to photograph the Roman temple and other ruins at sunset. Still, Evora by night was a splendid place. Quiet and empty, except round its elevated centre where people sat at restaurant tables or drank in the piazza. The cobbled streets were clean and warm, radiating all the day’s heat which seemed to come from the dim orange light. The marble columns of the temple were perhaps even more evocative by the light of the full moon which shone so brightly in the clear night sky.

This shot was taken the following morning, when clouds briefly blocked the sun. The lady in this image walked slowly and quietly, looking as a silhouette like some timeless Mediterranean figure. Even as the morning grew, the little town never really seemed to wake up, and this image always reminds me of the calm and ancient nature of the place. As does that beautiful piece of music by Loreena McKennitt Tango to Evora – which, sure, enough, I listened to while walking the streets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1428 Walking man

0358 Leap 2

3780 Lines 2

5407 Moree sunset 2

4795 Puppy dog morning

0725 Window 2 best

2315 The rocks

4110 Coast

6595 Magnus in shadow

5497 Cages

0814 Straight line

6066 Legs 2

2230 Rail tunnel

4355 Atomic

6177 Industrial sunset

0245 Dashboard

9912 Parrot

1290 Misty road

6081 The real star

2501 Coal

3680 Favoured by local dogs

0209 The staircase

6086 Circumspect

1383 Action selfie

I began writing this on the hottest July day that I recall – bear in mind that, in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the middle of winter – whereas today is awash with rain. It is not, however, a cold day, and the air has a springtime humidity and welcome mildness. Usually such conditions only prevail at the end of August, when spring announces itself prematurely before falling back into hibernation. Yet, nothing about the weather will surprise me this year, as, under the reign of El Nino, under the carbon loading of the Anthropocene, temperature records fall around us like flies dying from heat exhaustion.

While every part of the Earth is being affected by climate change in its own way, Australia, with its often very tenuous, marginal ecosystems, has already been particularly hard hit. This year has seen unparalleled forest fires raging through the rainforests of Tasmania; not the rejuvenating, replenishing kind of fires either, but destructive and devastating fires in a land unused to such dry soil and conditions. Along thousands of kilometres of the east coast, the Great Barrier Reef has suffered its worst ever episode of coral bleaching, with the loss of huge swathes of diverse marine life in once thriving areas. Along the north coast of Australia we have witnessed the largest ever die-off of Mangroves, hit hard by drier conditions and warmer ocean temperatures, while off the coast of western Australia, thousands upon thousands of acres of sea-grass forest has been lost to warmer waters. El Nino years, by definition, produce anomalous conditions, yet with the atmosphere so laden with carbon dioxide and the ocean being the Earth’s principal heat sink, the extremity of those conditions has gone far beyond any experienced in the past.

It is said that winter in Australia will be shorter and sharper in the future, and just two weeks ago the winter bit in a cold spell that briefly had the east in its grip. Then, like that, it was gone – replaced by an uncanny, unseasonal mildness. Perhaps the winter has come and gone; already the trees are blooming with fresh shoots. Meanwhile, our government ignores the severity of the issue, the absolute priority of climate change, and cuts funding for research and abatement. It is what Shakespeare would call “a tale told by an idiot.” And all of us are, unfortunately, culpable and complicit as hell. And yet, as always, life goes on – with its grand and petty concerns, with its glorious vanity.

0713 Modern woman

Modern woman, Sydney, June 29, 2012

8789 Paharganj - Delhi

Banana seller, Parharganj, New Delhi, May 5, 2010

1819 Greyscale Floating markets

Damnoen Saduak market, Bangkok, July 8, 2009

2713 Ferry to Naxos

Ferry to Naxos, September 22, 2013

4175 Elephant dude 2

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 14, 2009

2252 Temple drummer

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, Bali, March 20, 2009

2771 Mussoorie

Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India, April 8, 2010 – “Charlton Heston”

 

Most of the portraits I take are of people with their eyes elsewhere. Reluctant to intrude or make them feel self-conscious, I try to catch them when they are looking away. Sometimes they are already pre-occupied and make attractive subjects because of their contemplative mood, other times something might have just caught their eye and they are conveniently distracted.

This selection of portraits may have a wide distribution geographically and socio-economically, but all the subjects have one thing in common – their very personal subjectivity. Who can even begin to imagine what thoughts they are thinking? We may attribute some mundane generalities based on context, but whether their minds are on the metaphysical or the sublunary, whether they are in the here and now, or else, in some daydreaming fantasy, only they can know. As wondrous a talent as human empathy might be, we suffer from the flaw of projection wherein our own responses shape our imaginings of the thoughts of others. We are prisoners of our own minds; of the limitations of having only ever been one person.

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Fort Kochi, Kerala, December 28, 2012

This shot is taken in Fort Kochi, actually a distinct region of the city of Kochi, characterised by its Portuguese colonial past. The city and locale combine many traditions, brought through both conquest and trade.

The man in this image is walking on the boom of a “Chinese fishing net” as they are referred to locally. The structures are very curious things, rigged like a ship, long and spindly like a crayfish, they tilt over the brine of the Keralan backwaters, dangling and dipping wide nets. The shots below illustrate their insect-like appearance and hand-crafted elegance.

At times I look at this shot and feel it is one of the best I’ve ever taken. Then, at other times, it leaves me with a strange feeling of hollowness. Perhaps it is the industrial backdrop and the staunch and grim look on the man’s face. It contains humanity, but doesn’t feel like a celebration of humanity. Though, in a way, that is what it is intended to be.

9298 Chinese fishing nets

9021 Fishing net

The Return

Too much time has passed since I lasted posted a collection of photographs – partly because an air of malaise and pointlessness has set in around blogging, but mostly because I haven’t been excited about recent shots. Ever since my son was born I’ve mostly taken photos of him. This is great in that I have some really lovely images, but not especially interesting for people outside family circles. It’s also true, as noted before, that my range of travel has been somewhat limited, and when we do go somewhere, I’m often too distracted by parenting to spend the time finding the best shots.

Yet, whereas one world might seem to have shrunk, another microcosmic world has expanded exponentially – fatherhood. I say microcosmic because so much of my time is spent with my son, around the house and in the local area. We go through very similar routines most days and visit very familiar places – yet within that I’ve been privileged to develop a whole new perspective on life through watching the development of a human child. Before the weightiness of that eternal, paternal instinct, everything else seems far less important or purposeful. And in that microcosmic universe of my new family I’ve been swallowed somewhat, not unlike the immersion I seek in games – a willing escapism where all is coloured by “I’m a father now.”

So this is a return of sorts. A return to the vanity and exposure of the internet, where I shall post once again my small contribution to human culture, a collection of photos from the first quarter of the twenty-first century, one day to be archived and then utterly lost in the rises and falls and format shifts of the history yet to be made.

4017 Dude upright

4410 Biplane 3

4920 Tree morning

2352 Lady in window B & W

2515 Rusty rail

3933 Happy sunshine

3594 Wedding ring

5569 Leading with the elbow

2377 House wall

1283 Young guys, city

1357 Towel rack

1124 Light thin

0701 Old industrial 2

5812 Making and breaking Guernica

5939 Carriageworks

9882 Parrot head

3000 Crossing infinity

5957 Walk home

2307 Modern times

4574 Blue gate

Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 13, 2009

Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 13, 2009

This photo of a young Hmong girl in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has always given me mixed feelings. At first glance it seems like a gift to any travel photographer – the colourful traditional clothing, the curiously critical look of the subject, the exotic backdrop and setting, and, in truth, I took it without much thought, excited in the moment by the location and keen to capture it all as best as possible. It soon became quite clear, and really, should have been clear from the start, that these children are, rather sadly, paraded about for photographic opportunities in order to make a bit of money. By photographing her I felt complicit in all this and had to ask myself those age old questions about the impact of tourists and tourism, particularly on minority communities. Sure, it brings in dollars, but it’s obviously destructive and warps culture to the point that it becomes some commodified parody of itself.

When travelling, I’m often reminded of a line from Pulp’s Common People: “’Cos everybody hates a tourist, especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh.” It’s fair to say that I do take an interest in local concerns and don’t think it’s all such a laugh, but, whatever the case, “the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath” so to speak. Whether I’m helping or hindering people as a tourist, it will always be the case that shortly after arriving I’ll be moving on to the next place and, ultimately, returning home to the decadent cocoon that is Australia.

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