Random Musings – 09-13-2011

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    Wonderful Future that Never Was

         In the late 1970s, an article in an issue of the kids’ magazine Dynamite, predicted we’d have household robots by 1980.

         It’s now more than half past 2011. Where’s my robot?!?

         Now, to quote Bill Cosby, I told you that story to tell you this one. Physics professor and two-time Nebula Award winner Gregory Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics magazine have written a book called The Wonderful Future That Never Was, which looks back at predictions made by various experts in the pages of Popular Mechanics between 1903 and 1969.

         Some of these predictions proved prescient; others, not so much. As an example, a 1942 prediction that push buttons would replace dial phones came true; but a 1938 prediction that traffic balloons suspended over intersections would “supervise and report collisions via radio to a central location” didn’t.

         On the other hand, the “traffic balloon” idea isn’t that far removed from TV and radio stations broadcasting traffic reports from helicopters.

         As Benford comments on page 81, “it’s useful to see how linear thinking can be outflanked by a wholly new idea.” He pointed out that while a pundit in the 1920s said the best solution for reaching out to as many as 50 million radio listeners might be a system of relay stations 20 miles apart on level plains, geosynchronous satellites provided the actual solution. Not just for radio, but other means of communication.

         Arthur C. Clarke proposed such satellites in Wireless World in October 1945.

         Both a 1938 prediction that “radio delivery of facsimile newspapers directly into the home may be a reality in the near future” (page 89) and a 1950 prediction that “by A.D. 2000, fast jet and rocket-propelled mail planes will make it hard for telegraph companies all over the world to compete with the postal service that dormant facsimile-transmission systems will be revived.” (page 90) kinda-sorta came true. You can read newspapers online, and fax machines are still in use (transmitting items as written, as predicted in 1950); but we don’t have fast jet and rocket-propelled mail planes. In fact, some might argue that the post office is finding it hard to compete.

         Predicting the future based on current trends and technologies is hit or miss, of course. As Benford says in his introduction (page 10), “the visionary forward-thinkers of the twentieth century nailed many things that did come to pass, like television and freeways. Often, though, society got to those end results along very different paths, and with far different consequences, than the technophiles had predicted.”

         As an example, he said the rise of the automobile did lead to cities with broad avenues, as some had predicted. On the other hand, he said few foresaw the social consequences of the commuter society.

         He also pointed out (page 13) that many of our “modern, routine wonders emerged and evolved from ideas centuries old, but did so in a accelerating age of wonder.” As specific examples, he said modern planes and rockets like the Saturn V were implicit in the Wright Flyer; the iPod was implicit in the hand-cranked Victrola; and the Internet lay dormant in the Telegraph.

         On page 15, he said more than 50 percent of the predictions turned out to be good, with failure often assuming that bigger would be better.

         Predictions of the future weren’t just made in the pages of Popular Mechanics, of course. Edward Bellamy’s 1887 utopian novel Looking Backward concerns Julian West, a man of that time who emerges from a state of suspended animation in the year 2000. In imagining what life might be like in the year 2000, Bellamy turned to a relatively recent technology, the telephone (invented in 1876), and postulated that it would offer wonders unavailable in 1887. In the book, West finds that he can listen to concerts in other parts of the country— or the world— by having them sent over the telephone.

         Bellamy anticipated radio. And, to some degree, television and the Internet, though I doubt he imagined anyone watching a concert from the comfort of their own home.

         Someone— I forget who— described science fiction as “communication with the present.” In paging through The Wonderful Future That Never Was, you’ll note, as Benford does, that illustrations of the future often depict people dressed in the styles of the time of publication. The Wonderful Future That Never Was not only shows us ideas and concepts that never came to pass (and likely never will), such as the 1928 prediction that cities of the future would have multiple traffic levels (page 24); it also reflects some of the ideas and attitudes of the times when these predictions were made.

         It’ll be interesting to see how well more recent predictions of the future— however “more restrained and more subtle”, as Benford puts it— hold up when that future actually arrives.

         Meanwhile, The Wonderful Future That Never Was is an enjoyable look at both the past and the might-have-been future.

    Copyright 2011 Patrick Keating


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