Whatever happened to the future? What could be more futuristic than 2007?

Michael Fitzpatrick

The Guardian

Past seers gawped into the glitzy future to envisage a hi-tech world. But how many of them were right?

What could be more futuristic than 2007? But life in the early 21st century tells us otherwise: no flying cars, no dinners in a pill, and certainly no cool rocketing off to space cities in the required outfit of the future (shaved heads and Bacofoil jumpsuits).

We seem to have failed the expectations of the most wild-eyed seers from the past - futurologists who were for the most part in love with a supercharged, technologically sexy future where science would free us from the daily grind for holidays on the moon or underseas. But here we remain, plodding along somewhere between Orwell and Huxley in a familiar world that is neither utopia nor dystopia.

In our conservative, cost- and safety-conscious, paranoid, post-cold war world, the big ideas, the truly revolutionary concepts - space tourism, android domestic help, etc - simply haven't materialised.

What the futurologists did get right, however, were some of the more prosaic details that define us proto-21st-century-types, such as mobile phones and digital technologies.

Japan was particularly attuned to where technological development was heading 47 years ago. About 40% of the 135 advanced technologies predicted in 1960 to become reality by 2010 by Japan's Science and Technology Agency, set up by the government to help decide where R&D should go, have actually done so. And they're not all self-fulfilling prophecies either; most are non-Japanese inventions.

Accurate predictions

Mobile phones, microwave ovens, artificial insemination, permanent preservation of sperm, desalination and a voice-activated typewriter able to turn speech into text are just some of the things on the agency's list, which included 54 correct predictions.

Heavy investment in areas highlighted by the agency certainly helped their future realisation, and goes some way to explain why cities like Tokyo are seen as futuristic while ours - hello, Victorian sewerage and transport systems - seem backward.

"Britain could have led the world in developing the internet and computer games if the government had listened to the advice of a former editor of New Scientist [Nigel Calder] three decades ago," wrote Mick Hamer in New Scientist in 1994.

Hamer was revisiting predictions made by New Scientist's special issue on the future in 1964, many of which came true but were ignored by Whitehall.

More forward-thinking than the British, Americans too can tally up some major hits in past predictions; but anyone reading the New York Times in 1950 might have been seriously misdirected. In "Miracles You'll See In The Next Fifty Years", its science editor stuck his neck out to predict such things as "sawdust and wood pulp converted into sugary foods". Lucky children would be treated to "discarded paper table 'linen' and rayon underwear bought by chemical factories to be converted into candy."

Past blunders

The New York Times's mistakes, like many wild claims of the same period, stemmed from extrapolating hot areas of research at the time. When the US got it right it was during earlier, less developed times. The prize for the best informed predictions must go to the extraordinary seer-like minds of the writers for a 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal, who wrote: "Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electronically with screens at the opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span" and "photographs will be telegraphed from any distance". The internet? They also predicted the rise of the car, fridges, air-conditioning, zoned traffic and x-rays used in medicine.

There's no doubt technological divination is a tricky business, says Ian Pearson, head of BT's Foresight and Futurology Unit, a BT Group think tank. He has correctly forecast the rise of SMS, the search engine and interactive digital TV. There have been some misses, too, including virtual reality, whose allure he vastly overestimated.

"We predicted video-conferencing decades ago but we didn't think it would be through PCs, but dreamt up huge mahogany affairs instead. We did think of PCs, but not printers; thinking instead that you'd put a Polaroid against the screen to take a snap."

Tricky indeed. Below, we've outlined some key areas or modern life where past fortune-tellers were sure we would or wouldn't make technological strides. Enjoy reading with perfect 20/20 hindsight; unfortunately the 3D version isn't available.

Past predictions too often make hilarious reading rather than accurate forecasts

Transport: come fly with me

In 1940, Henry Ford said: "Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come." We are still smiling, Henry. The flying car stalled long ago, along with a wish list that included the commercial production of personal jets, helicopters, hovercrafts and jet cars. There are "skycars" and jet cars still knocking around laboratories but no commercial carplanes as yet. Pragmatists point to the air traffic control nightmare if should they start to fill the skies. One recent development that may take us closer to a personal flying saucer is from SPR Ltd, a small Havant-based company, which has successfully tested an experimental engine using patented microwave technology to convert solar energy directly into thrust - that is, an engine that could behave like an antigravity machine. The government has just given a grant to the company to build a prototype, according to New Scientist. Back in the same magazine in 1964 Professor Ian Fells saw things very nearly accurately when he talked of fuel cells driving electric motors. He now admits progress has been slower than he had hoped.

Communications: missed call

Alexander Graham Bell was overmodest when he predicted: "One day there would be a telephone in every American city". Some Japanese writers were way ahead of him. A 1901 edition of the Hochi Newspaper predicted, among other prescient ideas, the invention of wireless telephony (mobile phones), a technology where Japan still leads the world. The US lags in this sphere, so maybe it's not surprising to read in Laura Lee's book Bad Predictions that in 1984, US giant AT&T rejected a free opportunity to enter the mobile phone market because its forecasts "indicated only 900,000 units would be sold by 1995".

Computers: slow counting

Although widely foreseen as becoming useful tools, few came to predict what we might really use PCs for, while very few foresaw the rise of the PC. As IBM famously said in 1952: "The total market for computers would amount to around 52 units", only to raise its figures to the (in hindsight) still ludicrously low figure of 200,000 in the early 1980s. That is about the number shifted each week. Writing in New Scientist in 1964, Dr Maurice Wilkes predicted an "international network of computers" and the use of computers to crack the secrets of the genome, although like many he was a few years premature with his dates. 1984, he thought, would see this breakthrough.

Space: not the place

How retro-futuristic those Apollo moonshots seem to us now, and how soon their foregone evolution - crewed flights into deepest space - petered out, along with NASA funding for them. Around the time of the moon launches in the late 1960s, the US's Hudson Institute tried to guess what life would be like at the end of the century, and typically suggested space colonies and interstellar travel. Dr Richard van der Riet Woolley, Astronomer Royal and space adviser to the British government, said in 1956: "Space travel is utter bilge." The next year Sputnik orbited the Earth.

As it was, the moonshots went beyond anyone's expectations. Space colonisation hasn't taken off mostly because, as Sir Patrick Moore puts it, "space is a very dangerous place for ordinary people".

· If you'd like to comment on any aspect of Technology Guardian, send your emails to tech@guardian.co.uk

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: