Why were midcentury futurist predictions — like flying cars — so wrong?
Why were the futurists of the mid-20th century so wrong? Where are the robots, undersea cities, home nuclear plants, meals in a pill, and moon colonies? Damn it, where’s my flying car?
The short answer? Your flying car is collecting dust somewhere in Slovakia. And for the low, low price of $279,000, it could be sitting up on blocks in your own front yard.
Fact is, the creators of the AeroMobil 3.0, a somewhat car-shaped vehicle with fold-out wings and a rear-mounted propeller, have yet to put their product on the market — mostly because it wouldn’t actually address any needs we currently have. It requires 220 yards of clear road to take off, so you’d still have issues with traffic. If vertical liftoff were possible (it isn’t now), that would use up half its fuel instantly. The company claims the AeroMobil is “ideal for commuters … especially in countries with underdeveloped road infrastructure.” But pick an example of such a locale — Nepal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Brazilian rainforest — and I doubt you’ll find many commuters ready to spring for that kind of price tag.
Here’s the thing: most midcentury futurists were writers or filmmakers motivated by selling books or movie tickets, without (unlike yours truly) much concern for accuracy. Their “predictions” were therefore more fantastic than practical. How entertaining would it have been if the Jetsons had had high-speed Internet instead of flying cars? Judy tweets cat videos; Elroy watches porn. The 1962 cartoon-viewing audience couldn’t handle a show like that.
But even the experts have, for the most part, failed at predicting long-term technological change. Western Union executives declared the newly invented telephone had no value in modern society. Tech visionary Ray Kurzweil predicted medical research would have largely beaten cancer by 2009. It took even me a while to see the point of texting.
Why? Sometimes, like with cancer research, it’s because we just can’t predict how long developments will take. More often it’s because it’s always easy to misread the market. Inherent coolness notwithstanding, the success of any innovation relies on economics and infrastructure. We don’t live on Mars because it’s just not profitable to set up an artificial atmosphere there. Flying cars probably won’t become more than toys for rich people because of high oil prices, the real estate needed for personal airstrips, and the social stigma of the carbon footprint.
Another reason it’s tough to foresee future developments is that technology engenders more technology. Scientific advancement has sped up so much that a single innovation can within the space of a decade send progress down a path no one had envisioned. If you didn’t predict the Internet, you certainly couldn’t have predicted online libraries or virtual gaming or Tinder.
This isn’t to say that useless, vaguely futuristic gadgets aren’t out there — they’re just unlikely to transform society. A quick perusal of the interwebs will turn up any number of gimmicky high-end items for purchase, from air-conditioned shoes to a “Digital iPotty” — a trainer toilet with an iPad attached. (How can we expect little Tyler to tinkle without an interactive touchscreen?)
Taking a look at some of the predictions you mentioned:
- Wrist radios and TVs, à la Dick Tracy/James Bond: Got ’em. Apple Watch is due out in early 2015. You can pre-order one, or sit outside the store in the snow for three days with the other crazies.
- Robots: We’re still limited by cost and power, but we already have robots that vacuum floors by themselves, robots that play ping-pong, robots that do standup comedy, and thousand-robot swarms that communicate with each other and act in concert. Don’t tell me you haven’t chatted with Siri when you’re bored and lonely.
- Space stations and space travel: We went into space, we went to the moon, and we decided there really wasn’t enough interesting stuff up there to justify the cost and risk of sending humans any farther. Our relatively unambitious International Space Station has run up a $160 billion tab thus far, and currently costs more than $3 billion a year to allow six permanent crew to perform relatively mundane microgravity experiments. And after nearly 50 years of space travel we’re still accidentally blowing things up.
- Undersea cities: Beyond the issue of why you’d really want to live in one, the whole enterprise is close to cost-prohibitive. True, Chinese investors have recently commissioned the design of a floating city covering four square miles of ocean. Considering China’s track record with urban planning, I remain suspicious.
For the most part, the technology required for all these predictions is there, just not utilized. Take flying cars. Look at your fellow commuters: The woman in the next car is reading her Kindle. The guy on the other side is shaving. The kid ahead of you is sexting his boyfriend. These are the people you want driving around the sky at 125 miles an hour? Alternatively, you could take advantage of modern technology that’s actually useful — namely, the Internet — and eliminate your commute altogether by writing newspaper columns from bed in your jammies. The choice is yours.