October 21st each year I like to order a pizza and a Pepsi from Pizza Hut, watch all three Back to the Future films, and think about “The Future”. I call it Future Day. It’s a relatively simple holiday to celebrate every year, and I’ve celebrated it for decades. October 21st, 2015 was the date that Doc takes Marty McFly and Jennifer to visit their future. I’ve always counted the holiday from 2015, so this will be the (Positive) Sixth Annual Future Day, even though I’ve celebrated it for decades at this point. I even went so far as to post the idea to Facebook and invite guests to my place to hang out and marathon Back to the Future with me for a few years early in owning my current home. I don’t remember the exact years offhand, but that would have started sometime round the Negative Fourth Annual.
Ordering a pizza and a Pepsi from Pizza Hut is easy enough to do. I deeply associate these specific foods/drinks with the holiday for many reasons. It was sometimes the food pairing of choice when watching the films on VHS as a kid. It’s also the product placement meal inside of Back to the Future Part II, though I still don’t have a Black & Decker Food Rehydrator with which to reheat my dehydrated pizzas. (Just the regular delivery of hot pizzas in cardboard boxes.)
Watching all three Back to the Future films is definitely a marathon and not a sprint, so it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. The few years I invited guests over, very few guests made it all the way through Back to the Future Part III. Sometimes that’s just because fewer people appreciate Part III. (In my opinion you can’t watch Part II without watching Part III. That’s only watching half the movie.) Often it’s because the 21st tends to fall on a weeknight (it was a Wednesday in 2015, it’s a Thursday in 2021) and people couldn’t stay up that late and it was tough to start earlier.
Thinking about “The Future” is the part that’s supposed to be hard.
The movies spark some obvious conversations, especially now that we are in positive annual celebrations. Obviously we didn’t get hoverboards nor hover car conversions (though as Back to the Future Part II is quick to point out such things don’t solve traffic, they just make it worse). But there’s subtle things it got quite right like the cyclical return of ’80s nostalgia in 2015 and interesting predictions about smartphone tech though it generally got the form factor wrong (glasses and visors rather than hand tablets). Compared to the so called “curse” of the film 2001, Back to the Future Part II did a much better job picking brands that remained (mostly) relevant/existing into the real 2015. Black & Decker still existed in 2015 though much less prominent in American life with the dismantlement of Sears. It was also rebranded Black+Decker in 2014, so the ampersand on the Rehydrator would have been an interesting throwback or an older model than 2015. (Because ampersands are too polite/old fashioned for appliances or something? I don’t understand rebrands sometimes.) JVC was sold by Panasonic and merged with Kenwood in 2008 and the combined company JVCKenwood moved to focusing on the Kenwood brand name in America and it was relatively unlikely to buy JVC branded stuff in 2015 other than for nostalgia, mostly. (Possibly explained by Marty working for a Japanese conglomerate.)
But something that the Back to the Future movies do particularly well, I think, in the “got subtle things quite right” department is the respect for what today we often refer to as “Gibson’s Law”, named today for sci-fi author and the ur-provocateur of the cyberpunk genre William Gibson is the observation/realization that “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed”. It’s not a unique observation, William Gibson helped give it a better name. In furnishing and set designing the Hill Valley of the 1950s the Back to the Future filmmakers realized they needed to mix in 1920s/1930s cars and furniture and architecture and in general span several decades of brands and fashions and building designs to make the town feel real. A lot of that same eye was applied to the Hill Valley of 2015: most of the bones are the same as 1950s (and the decrepit no one is downtown in the town square much any more 1980s Hill Valley) of course, but they also applied changes they were already seeing in the early 1990s when they were filming and things like ’80s nostalgia cafe both made it easier for them to dress sets, but also fit exactly the sort of thing that really happens within the fabric of cities. The antique shop selling a “classic” Dustbuster (another Black+Decker brand that still exists, though generally surpassed by “fun” modern brands like “Shark hand vaccuum”), and the alleyway full of trashed Laserdiscs their own similar statements.
Things don’t just “light switch on/off” into a new state: progress is gradual and spread thinly across early adopters, upper classes, and variable adoption curves. The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.
Contemplating Gibson’s Law on Future Day I find a useful exercise/reminder. I appreciate that it is hard. I want to appreciate all the little and big things we take for granted “living in this future” and all the little and big things we will likely take for granted tomorrow in whatever that future may bring. (Gibson’s Law would remind us we probably even know what that is/will be: it’s likely already out there in some rich person’s hands right now. What do you think they are doing with it?)
Gibson’s Law reminds us that “The Future” doesn’t really just shock us and appear all of a sudden: it’s a lot more like the oft-mentioned boiling frog analogy, because it just creeps up on us all slowly over time as it’s mostly already here, it just may not be distributed or only thinly distributed to us just yet. (Whether as the boiling frogs in this analogy this is healthy, is a deep and long question, and arguably a key question to a lot of cyberpunk writing.)
The last couple of years because of COVID we’ve all heard and used and groaned at and then tried to reclaim and then tried to dustbin and then had to pick back up the term “the new normal”. Whatever stage of grief, acceptance, and/or disdain you find yourself with that phrase right now, that phrase itself is an embodiment of the hard parts of Future Day. What is the new normal that has snuck and whelmed its way into our lives? What do we want it to be? What do we recognize we have no way to control about it? How do we control whatwe do have access to for the better? How do we look forward to it with optimism rather than fear?
I made up this silly holiday because I loved the Back to the Future movies and as an annual excuse to put my rewatch marathon on the calendar, on an interesting date that’s mentioned in the movie, and on the sort of mid/late-Fall day (weeknight aside) where curling up with a pizza and watching three movies back to back feels like it makes a lot of sense. Yet it is years especially like this one, the second Future Day after March 2020 and the multiple “new normals”–creating pandemic that the hard challenge I gave myself to make the personal holiday mean something seems ever more crucial, ever subtly harder, and I suppose a lot more meaningful.
If you get a chance, maybe grab a pizza and watch Back to the Future tomorrow? At least contemplate “The Future” and how it is already here?