In medieval times, people felt helpless in the face of life’s harshness.  They cowered under a huge sky which was home to spirits and gods, so they needed something to believe in.  They sought solace in the ideals of chivalry – even though they knew deep down that the world was a cynical, nasty place, pace Hobbes’ Leviathan.

During the Renaissance, we began to dream of places beyond the horizon.  Using telescopes, we looked into the heavens and wondered what life would be like on other worlds.  Gradually we began to discern the stars and planets, then two centuries after the Industrial Revolution began, we developed many of the technologies we use today.

We can transmit signals around the world and bounce them back from the moon.  We build radio telescopes to plot nebulae hundreds of millions of light years away.  We design electronic computers which operate at phenomenal speeds, solving in milli-seconds problems which would occupy the lifetimes of thousands of human brains.  The twentieth century might have changed everything.

The year 1900 was predicted to be a turning point for humanity: Jules Verne, HG Wells and many others looked forward to the infinite promise of the 20th century.  However, its first four decades brought war and suffering.  Today 1900 is not only ancient history, but it’s also a prosaic lie which computer systems tell about our age.  117 years ago is 1900, which is the "big bang" for many computers.

In the year 2000, we got worked up about the Millennium Bug and its effect on Windows PC’s, but in the Unix epoch, Time 0 = Jan 1st, 1900, so if someone online appears to be 117 years old, that may just be the default value for "no age entered".  Neither 1900 nor 2000 turned out to be a turning point; in fact they were nothing more than big, round numbers.

Yet perhaps we still believe – like Hari Seldon, the hero of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Series” – that given enough information and computing power, we’ll eventually be able to predict the fall of every sparrow.  After all, our industrial future seems to lie in frontier science, bio-photonics, remote sensing, spectroscopy, genetic engineering and so forth.  At the same time, we’ve abandoned most of the old industries – like coal mining, iron making and ship-building.  Somewhere along the line, something crucial was mislaid.

At Cornell University they have a piece of scientific kit known as the Tunnelling Electron Microscope.  This microscope is so powerful that by firing electrons you can actually see images of individual atoms.  We can observe the structure of an elemental particle so infinitesimal that billions are contained in one grain of sand.  Yet if I used that microscope right now, I still wouldn't be able to put my finger on exactly what was lost.

This is where Franco Berardi's idea of the cancellation of the future comes in.  It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, nor does it mean an end to trivial developments in science and technology.  What it means is that the promise of an unchecked future, the promise of a better life for all which was so much a part of popular thinking and culture until the 1970’s, has been unofficially abandoned.

Conversely and paradoxically, hope flourished during wartime, when things were at their darkest.  Folk had a determination to continue with their lives, keeping up standards and sticking to their little routines in the face of adversity.  Maybe it’s more difficult to promote hopefulness after 70 years of peace and relatively easy living in the West. 

I’ve always been interested in the side effects of war, at least since I read Martin Pawleys’ many articles about the technology that wartime research spawned, but one thing Pawley didn’t touch on was a barrel of chemicals left outside in the baking sunshine of a small French town.

Most of the grand French perfume houses are in Paris, but the firms which supply their ingredients are located around Grasse, a small town in Provence surrounded by fields of lavender.  The barrel in question was simply known as Fut Cinque or "Barrel 5”, and it contained what’s known as a reaction accord, a base chemical called Prunol which had reacted as it sat broiling in the sunshine in a corner of the DeLaire company’s yard.

DeLaire supplied base chemicals to many perfumers, including Edmond Roudnitska, who was running short of raw materials while France was occupied in the early 1940’s.  “Let me tell you, I created Femme de Rochas in 1943 in Paris during the worst days of the war in a building that had a rubbish dump on one side and paint factory on the other,” he remarked. 

According to the wisdom of the internet, Femme smells of ripe summer plums, thanks to a combination of castoreum, oakmoss, cuminic aldehyde, heliotropin, musk, lactonic aldehydes and methyl ionone.  In particular, its dark, indolic scent comes from methyl ionones, which smell like woody violets – but the secret ingredient was the Prunol Extra, an accidental discovery in a rusty barrel.

Why choose perfume as a symbol for wartime?  If you sell everyday commodity products such as baked beans, toilet roll and mousetraps you end up making a very low margin, because folk buy them grudgingly, and just want them swiftly and as cheaply as possible.

On the other hand, if you deal in luxury goods, you’re selling an idea to folk who have disposable income to spend on something which gives them pleasure.   You sell an abstraction – such as a way of life, or a sense of adventure – rather than merely a physical object.  People see it as a mark of culture and sophistication, of maintaining standards – and that counts for a lot during wartime.

However, that all changed after VE Day.  The post-War notion of luxury is summed up in a passage from Bill Bryson's, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid:
"By the closing years of the 1950s most people – certainly most middle-class people – had pretty much everything they had ever dreamed of, so increasingly there was nothing much to do with their wealth but buy more and bigger versions of things they didn't truly require: second cars, lawn tractors, double-width fridges, hi-fis with bigger speakers and more knobs to twiddle, extra phones and televisions, room intercoms, gas grills, kitchen gadgets, snowblowers, you name it.”

This is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in practice: once you satisfy the basic necessities of life, in other words survival, then the rest is “living”.  To people in Occupied France during the early ‘40’s, wearing perfume helped them to retain something of their humanity which the soldiers could never take away.  It carried with it the promise of an unchecked future, the promise of a better life after the armistice, which was in turn reflected in everything from food, fashion and literature, to post-War architecture.

All of those hopes were enshrined in Modernism – our belief in relentless progress.  But the Modernist project is incomplete.  It was a false dawn and according to Franco Berardi, the future was cancelled sometime in the 1970’s.  The social democratic, left-of-centre governments which revolutionised our healthcare, education and housing in the first three decades after the War are history, and the White Heat of Technology which promised high tech jobs has cooled down.

Now we’re in the 21st century.  After we partied like it was 1999, thanks to Prince (RIP), the year 2000 turned out to be a damp squib.  The Millennium Bug was a non-event – partly because the computers which really matter either ran Unix and were “born” in 1900 or Apple’s System 7, which was born in 1984, Steve Jobs’s Orwellian joke.  The computers kept churning on, quickly bringing us a world wide web which is mostly geared to providing information as a commodity.

As for the future which Berardi considered, who knows what it will bring?  When Modernism lapsed, architecture parted company with 21st century frontier science, bio-photonics, spectroscopy, genetic engineering and remote sensing … because many of these functions are housed in plain steel-clad sheds which say nothing about what goes on within.

No one builds High Tech architecture anymore; who has built a modern version of Richard Rogers’ INMOS microchip building?  It certainly isn’t Norman Foster, whose Death Star doughnut will become Apple’s new HQ, nor the people who designed the Googleplex with its labyrinth of multi-coloured cooling water pipes – photos of which are doing the rounds on the internet.

Perhaps we need to look into the sky again, to see where our futures lie. 

If you look up tonight, the summer night sky has little of interest compared to the winter night sky, but you may see the constellation of Lyra.  The brightest star in Lyra is Vega, which is the second brightest in the Northern Hemisphere.  Right now, people lost in deserts use Polaris (the North Star) to locate north.  But in a few thousand years’ time the North Star will no longer point northwards, due to the earth’s axial precession.  Around the year 13700 AD, Vega will become the new North Star.

Remember that, just in case you become immortal and get lost in space sometime in the distant future.

By Mark • Albums: technology