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What toys from the past can tell us about how we predict the future

The Museum of Future History explores how we colonize the future when we try to envision it.

What toys from the past can tell us about how we predict the future
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If there’s one thing we know for certain about the future, it’s that we don’t know what will happen. But we can—and do—try to make predictions: about how climate change will affect our planet, what will happen to the economy, which jobs will be in demand and which ones will be obsolete.

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What if those predictions actually ended up affecting how the future unfolds, like self-fulfilling prophecies? It’s a question plaguing futurists, and now a project is trying to illustrate the problem by showing how things created in the past have colored the present. The simplest examples—items that truly shape the minds of our next generations—come in the form of children’s toys.

Foki El Marciano, circa 1969 [Photo: Diego M. Lascano/courtesy Jonathon Keats/UNESCO]
The Museum of Future History’s first exhibition, Toying With Tomorrow: Playthings That Anticipated the Here and Now, is curated by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats and timed to debut at the UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) High-Level Futures Literacy Summit.

Automatic Washer, circa 1975 [Photo: The Museum of Future History/courtesy Jonathon Keats/UNESCO]
The idea was sparked by a growing concern among futurists, Keats says, that we have been “colonizing the future” with visions and predictions of what it will bring, and that those visions limit the opportunities or possibilities of those future generations. But this can be an abstract concept to grasp.

“What we needed was some way in which people could recognize the phenomenon in their own lives, and they could use that as a means by which to consider what sorts of predictions they make, what sort of impact those predictions might have going forward—individually as well as collectively in a society,” Keats explains. “Toys have a very direct way in which they influence the future through the children who play with them.”

Dick Tracy Two-Way Wrist Radio manufactured by Remco, circa 1946 [Photo: The Museum of Future History/courtesy Jonathon Keats/UNESCO]
Consider the Dick Tracy Wrist Radio from 1946, on exhibit because it may have “stoked the desire for, and helped inspire eventual development of, wearable communications devices including the Apple Watch,” an online pamphlet about the museum reads. Or Meccano, one of the first construction sets from 1901. It used interchangeable metal parts and was influenced by the concepts of the Industrial Revolution. “In marketing materials, the product was presented as a sort of apprenticeship-in-a-box, teaching ‘correct’ engineering principles,” the exhibit materials note. While it may have taught kids how to build, it only taught them how to build in one way, and only with certain materials.

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Meccano Outfit #3, circa 1924 [Photo: The Museum of Future History/courtesy Jonathon Keats/UNESCO]
Considering how these toys may have shaped our future is only one purpose of the museum. The other is to foster more open-ended forward-thinking visions—to challenge designers, toy makers, and society in general to create futures without limitations imposed by the past. Some people have argued we’ve now overbuilt our world; a recent study found that the mass of all of our human things—buildings, roads, cars, and so on—is greater than the weight of living things.

It’s important, Keats says, for people to think about “what a future Meccano set might be that is not only one that involves girders and nuts and bolts, but also in which parts might grow organically.” That toy could be redesigned, for example, to consider how nature builds.

To illustrate the concept, Keats has redesigned the classic X-Ray Specs, which are an example, he says, of how toys can promote misleading possibilities that never come to fruition. Instead, Keats turned them into a “future viewer.” Rather than seeing the false illusion the original toy shows, the future viewer uses prisms to show multiple images “that suggest a multiplicity of futures,” Keats says. Similarly, a template you can download from the museum for a “biodegradable time capsule” is an exercise in creating a vision of the future but not clinging to it, instead letting that vision go as the paper time capsule disintegrates.

Toys are just the beginning. The Museum of Future History is partnering with the Museum of Tomorrow International, a global consortium of science museums, to continue the project. Keats envisions that eventually the Museum of Future History will have a physical location with traveling collections and an archive of books, newspaper clippings, fashion, computers, architecture—anything, basically, that can be examined for the way it may have “colonized the future.” The museum may even consult with designers or governments to create new objects that take all of this into consideration.

“One aspect of having a museum that puts objects like these on a pedestal is to engage people in that practice of close looking and careful consideration of the mechanism by which we make assumptions . . . and to find things by which better to question ourselves,” Keats says. “And to do so in a way not to shut us down, but rather to open us up.”