A while back I made the observation that the universal signifier in TV and film for “this takes place in the future” is that everyone is wearing a long coat. Mind you, not the “this takes place right about now-ish” which used to be signified by Black President; this is the “this takes place 20 MINUTES INTO THE FUTURE (go back and watch Max Headroom. Edison Carter? Long coat. The Matrix? Come on.) Even with the new Sherlock series from the BBC, they made our hero’s trademark a longish grey coat which is apparently reshaping men’s fashion this winter in London.
I don’t know how we wound up on the long coat. It’s a step up from spandex jumpsuits and shiny silver spacesuits with miniskirts (and come on, I don’t have the legs for it). And it gets away from the “everybody carries a death ray or a laser pistol or blah blah” that came from the fact that sci-fi was “Space Western” for a long time. (Firefly. Hell, they made their long coat the symbol of the fandom.) I think, ultimately, it boiled down to this revelation:
The future looks like the present, but different.
If I had stepped through a wormhole on Thanksgiving day and appeared to myself sixteen years ago or so, my earlier self would almost certainly have looked at me and said I was obviously from the future. Same Timex Ironman watch, but mine is sleeker and more rounded and has inverted Indiglo – but in almost all other respects is the same. Even the color scheme is basically identical. Same Birmingham Barons cap – but instead of a white B on a black cap with a red bill, the whole cap is black and the while B is trimmed in a red halo, and the hat is a low crown instead of the classic big square Fred McGriff front. And of course, the long coat – my green oilcloth engineer’s coat is just right for the look even before throwing the obligatory cyberpunk mirrorshades into the mix (yes, I picked up another pair of the Oakley Halfwire 2.0s in Ice Iridium). Give me something slightly futuristic for a sidearm, like a 5.7x28mm FiveseveN (the Battlestar Galactica pistol from season 2 on), and you’ve hit all the highlights. (And then give me a couple of Daleks and some polycarbonate-shattering bullets for the gun. Sometimes you just need something you can kill with a clean conscience.)
For the most part, the Sony Ericsson phones always did a good job of looking just barely futuristic. Maybe it was the font of the corporate logo compared to the Sony or Ericsson brand logos by themselves. My little white Nokia conveys the look well, especially since it’s got no carrier branding at all, while the MOTOFONE F3 is so damn thin (try a third of an inch thick) and so wild with the e-ink display that you can overlook its 1996-ish feature set. Come to think of it, the laceless Converse One Stars in gray canvas have the appropriate retro-future look.
This can be a trap, of course. Look at something like E.E. Smith’s legendary Lensman series in the 1930s, the forerunner of the whole Green Lantern Corps concept – they have planet-destroying weapons and faster-than-light travel with NO COMPUTERS AT ALL. DSL in the late 90s frequently came with the burden of PPPoE, because the providers treated it as just a faster species of dialup – notions of what you could do with a persistent high-speed connection were beyond them until people found their own application (Napster sold a LOT of broadband in 1999-2000). When Gibson’s Law is invoked (“the street finds its own uses for technology”), the rules can change in a hurry.
But by and large, if you assume the future will look pretty much like today, you’re not far off. Just make sure your coat is long enough. Meanwhile, my signifier for the future? A gender-swapped version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”…