Nostalgia for the Future: Flintstone-Jetson Syndrome and the Digital Sundial

We yearn for the future. We pine for the past. Which is better?

The Flintstones and the Jetsons were the same show, just set in different eras. The family hijinks played out alongside a pet dinosaur or a robot maid, but the plot points were largely the same. Which one makes a better backdrop, the paleolithic past or the space car future? Maybe either one will do. All we know for sure is that the present is not so great. Let me escape to elsewhen. Call it the Flintstone-Jetson syndrome.

Lately, though, optimistic Jetson-style futurism has taken a beating, what with climate change, global pandemics, and the cancellation of Keeping Up With the Kardashians after only 20 seasons. What really gets us going these days is a package that contains elements of the future embedded in the past. Nostalgia for might-have-beens and should-have-beens. A cozy extrapolation down a few avenues rather than the cluster chaos madness that beckons us now.

The Flintstone-Jetson mashup shows up in entertainment genres like steampunk, but it also appears in consumer goods. We take something old, something sturdy and mechanical, like a spring-driven watch, and then we pump it full of high-tech low-tech. It’s still old-school mechanical, but now it’s a gorgeous jewel-bearing triple-axis gyrotourbillon wristwatch, available for small multiples of one hundred thousand dollars. It’s the future and the past in one sexy package. It feels like it came from… elsewhen.

My personal favorite example of the Flintstone-Jetson syndrome is also a timepiece. It’s a 3D-printed sundial. If it was just an ordinary sundial that happened to be 3D-printed, that wouldn’t be anything special. But this sundial is digital. What does that even mean? How can a sundial be digital?

To demonstrate the effect, I’m holding it up at different angles

Behold. As the sun changes position in the sky, the light pathways that make up the “pixels” for the time display are either opened or occluded. The effect only works down to about 20 minutes’ worth of temporal resolution. But who knows? Maybe we can fix that next year with a new triple-axis jewel-mounted turbo-gnomon.

If you want to learn more about this sundial, here is the project page on Thingiverse, and here is a video about it.