There’s a beautiful future ahead, but maybe not for all of us. On a recent trip to Tokyo and Seoul, I encountered a trio of “museums of the future”—the Mori Art Museum, the Mori Digital Art Museum/TeamLab Borderless, and SKT T.um—where art and engineering come together to provide visions of 2050 and beyond.
These smart, eye-opening, and thought-provoking exhibits are full of hope, but left me wondering if the United States can keep up or whether we’ll be left behind in traffic-clogged, crumbling, or even abandoned cities.
Mori Art Museum: Contemplating the Future
The Mori Art Museum is at the top of a skyscraper in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills neighborhood, part of a sealed arcology of offices and restaurants surrounding a gigantic Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture. At night, you rise via escalator from the streets of Tokyo into a quieter, orderly place, then ascend even farther on long elevators to Mori’s aerie.
The museum’s current Future and the Arts show features the good, the bad, and the weird of the future. I was most taken by the city designs: ways for us to live together in a hotter, wetter, more connected world. There are also experiments in 3D-printed buildings and food (sushi ends up looking like Legos), some really creepy post-humanist printed organs, and a chair you can sit in while disturbingly realistic, auto-generated bot tweets descend on printed tape from the ceiling.
3D-printed sushi, anyone?
There’s art about ubiquitous surveillance, a decent mockery of Bitcoin, crazy biological building shapes, and a virtual diva. It doesn’t tell you how we’re going to get to these places as a society, but it does plant hope in your mind.
Human ingenuity isn’t used up, the show tells you. If you’ve been wondering why we have Facebook instead of flying cars, Future and the Arts gives you your flying cars, your art robots, and your genetically modified children with DNA from five different parents. The show doesn’t always judge whether these things are good (except for the sustainable city designs—they’re good), but it’s proof that people are working on and thinking about innovations beyond better ways to steal elections and serve up more targeted ads.
Bjarke Ingels Group’s Oceanix City envisions a sustainable community on the open seas.
Maybe it’s just because I was so far from home (and in Tokyo), but the show provoked both hope for humanity and despair for America. European architects and Asian artists in the show use bacteria for data storage and imagine cities on the sea, but in the US, we’re stuck “rolling coal” while our transportation and healthcare systems crumble around us. Our most brilliant inventors seem to be mostly concerned with how to get a few wealthy people off the planet so the rest of us can drown in our suffering.
Future and the Arts is on at the Mori Art Museum through March 29. You can find details on how to get to the museum and ticket prices on its website.
At Mori Digital Art Museum, the Future Is Playful
Also part of the Mori real estate empire, the Mori Digital Art Museum/TeamLab Borderless is pure play, letting kids and adults envision and create virtual objects and entire ecosystems with which they can interact. Have you wondered about all this augmented-reality stuff? At Borderless, you can draw a crazy plant or animal and have it come to life on the walls and floor. Or drink a perfect bowl of iced tea while a virtual flower blooms in the middle of it.
TeamLab Borderless is full of mysterious forests to play in.
Life in the future can be beautiful, imaginative, and whimsical, Borderless tells us. The best part of the gigantic, two-story space is the second-floor “athletics forest,” where you wander and tumble on giant synthetic hills filled with constantly changing art, or climb playground equipment embedded with mysterious lights.
I spent about two hours at Borderless, because my teenage daughter kept drawing creatures and seeing how they’d interact with everyone else’s ecosystems—an eyeball-flower that got eaten by a salamander, and a whimsical graffiti shark that turned out not to be very hungry at all.
All these creatures were drawn by visitors, and then released into the ‘wild.’
If you intend to go to Borderless, it’s smart to buy tickets in advance; access is controlled, and they sell out. Borderless is in Odaiba, a low-lying series of islands in eastern Tokyo covered in shopping malls and oddball tourist attractions. Within walking distance is a small-scale Statue of Liberty, an oversized Gundam, and a really big Ferris wheel. After Borderless, we ended up eating and playing with puppies in Venus Fort, an over-the-top mall that looks like the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.
You could easily make it a full day trip by hitting the nearby science museum, Joypolis indoor amusement park, and finishing at Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a “hot spring theme park” where you get to wear yukata robes and play old-fashioned carnival games before dunking yourself in the best hot pools I found in Japan.
In Seoul, a Networked Ride Into 2050
SKT’s T.um in Seoul takes you on a Disney World-quality journey through the globally connected world of tomorrow. In 2050, SKT powers space habitats and underwater cities. The world government communicates through holographic video conferencing. Remote robotic surgery works wonders, and there are drones, drones, drones.
T.um is hidden in SKT’s office building in downtown Seoul. It’s an hour-long, fully interactive, and completely free voyage into what SKT envisions as one possible future. In a city that has built itself from rubble to glittering towers in the past 60 years and is now significantly ahead of the US with 5G, it’s worth seeing what they think they’ll be able to accomplish 30 years from now.
Take a ride into a better future in SKT’s motion simulator.
You leave the ride to explore a few different areas. I expected museum halls, but what I got were VR games, motion simulators, and holo-displays that really pulled me into SKT’s simulated 2050. Under the guidance of futuristic docents, you get to deflect a deadly asteroid and defuse a hurricane.
It’s a blast, sometimes literally. You start out as a mere visitor and end up as an action-movie hero. There’s a “why” here, of course. All the technologies you encounter—like that stunning post-United Nations holo-meeting—would be dependent on ubiquitous networks with near-zero short-range latency, huge bandwidth, and edge processing. This isn’t 5G. It’s more like 7G. But we’re going to need 5G (and 6G) if we want to get there.
Apparently, government structures will be different in 2050.
T.um is free, but you need to make a reservation. It’s currently closed because of the coronavirus, but it’s sure to open again when that subsides.
Will Things Get Worse Before They Get Better?
There’s a dark side to T.um. Blasting off in your motion simulator from the space station to the underwater city, you pass ruined cities and desert landscapes, the wrecked detritus of a civilization. The seas teem with life, and brilliance is happening in space—but in SKT’s future, the surface of the Earth seems to be largely desolate, and you wonder where most of the people have gone.
Walking out of T.um, I kept thinking about two science-fiction scenarios: the world in William Gibson’s book The Peripheral and Star Trek. In The Peripheral, people from a seemingly wealthy, paradisiacal late-22nd-century London reach back to talk to folks in a struggling 2030s America. How did this gorgeous nanotech-enabled future come to pass? It only happened after “the jackpot,” a cataclysm of war, disease, and climate change that killed 80 percent of the people on Earth and left the ecosystem dependent on man-made air-purifying structures.
The Mori Art Museum has an amazing view of Tokyo.
That’s a riff on Star Trek, updated for modern crises. Star Trek’s similarly nanotech-enabled Earth is peaceful, global, healthy, and post-scarcity—because it had been ravaged by a mid-21st-century nuclear war that wiped out most of humanity and then rebuilt after decades of struggle and misery.
The digital city gurus providing visions for the Mori Art Museum seem to have made a similar calculus. Oceanix City is a sustainable landscape for a much smaller population on a very different planet; it looks ideal for after the seas have risen and after the wars and pandemics.
Many of the most compelling visions in these museums rely on infrastructure: the ability to build trains, buildings, cities, networks, and orbital space platforms. At the moment, that’s one thing we in the US seem to have forgotten to do. Our cities are snarled with traffic, our transportation systems are crumbling, and our ambitions have largely collapsed from the realm of the physical into the virtual. We are more Ready Player One than Star Trek.
In the 21st century, just being virtual isn’t going to cut it. As the seas rise, we need to be ready to build to meet them. Will we do so, or will we become that ruin I zipped past?