Memories of the future
Where are the cities on the moon and airplanes that can fly from one continent to another in less than an hour? What happened to the future we were promised, with dreams of androids and amazing machines? Were we misled or has fate simply taken a different course? Think of it as “science non-fiction.”
TEXT: FRANCISCO ORTEGA @efeortega | illustrations: HUGO HORITA
According to the Back to the Future movies, by 2015 we should have flying skateboards, home nuclear reactors that run on garbage, giant holographic projections and hovercraft soaring over our streets. According to Blade Runner, we should be seeing the replicant industry extending beyond military applications into entertainment and sex work. Along the same timeline, the richest people should have left Earth to colonize other planets, while overpopulation should have caused the entire West Coast of the United States to merge into one big city called Los Angeles, with some buildings so tall they block out the sun. There should also be flying cars and spacecraft capable of taking us to the nearest stars… A similar reality was depicted in William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which coined the terms cyberpunk, cyberspace, virtual reality and the matrix. The Canadian author showed us a world in which World War III happened five years ago and was fought from computer consoles, the United States is suffering from overpopulation, and the east coast – the super-city called the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis – has collapsed.
And speaking of The Matrix, in the Wachowskis’ films, 2015 is only three years away from the creation of 01 – the machine city in the Middle East that will trigger the Apocalypse – although we won’t know it because the artificial intelligence will keep us trapped in a fake, shared reality that resembles the early 21st century. (What if it has already happened?)
A similarly dark reality is portended in the Terminator movies. In this future, for more than a decade now we’ve been living in a world devastated by nuclear weapons launched by Skynet, the U.S. Air Force network that became sentient and concluded that human beings were the greatest threat to machine survival.
It’s not far from the events in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels rebelled against their creators and established a dictatorship that enslaved mutants and humans for half a decade. Or at least they did before Wolverine traveled back to the 1970s to prevent that timeline from occurring, so the future we’re seeing now might be the thanks to the adamantium-clawed, Canadian mutant.
Looking for more serious predictions? Check out Arthur C. Clarke, the most visionary science fiction writer of the 20th century. He wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey (adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick) and its three sequels set in 2010 (also made into a movie, but not by Kubrick), 2061 and 3001. In Clark’s universe, 15 years ago, the Discovery spacecraft made contact with a highly advanced alien relic on Jupiter, and five years ago, Jupiter was transformed into Lucifer, a second sun in our solar system.
So what happened? Where is the future we were promised since childhood? At what point did 2015 (and 2016 and 2017…) become memories of things that never happened?
None of it actually came to pass; the Airstream Futuropolis is now a vintage concept, a metal scrapheap. When we yearn for flying cars and cities on the moon, it’s because we visualize the “semiotic ghosts” of pop culture, and we long for them as though they had actually existed. Ultimately, it’s not the future, it’s an estranged past.
The future that is
Smartphones: Hats off to Star Trek. While most other science fiction held on to the idea of landlines (like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner), Gene Roddenberry’s series boldly imagined a mobile communications device. He only goofed on the date: Star Trek had “communicators” appearing in the early 23rd century.
The Internet: In 1898, Mark Twain’s science fiction story “From the ‘London Times’ in 1904,” introduced the notion of the “telelectroscope,” a communications network that would connect the entire world. Many years later, William Gibson’s Neuromancer explored the idea of the World Wide Web, but by then, the Internet already existed in academic and military versions.
Videophones: Part of life in 2015, according to Back to the Future Part II, videophones are one of the film’s more accurate predictions. Today, they are even more commonplace and practical than depicted. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner also successfully foretold this innovation.
iTunes/iPod: In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard listened to classical music using a program that stored all the recordings in the world; he could even make lists and transfer them onto his mobile communication device: the actual inspiration for Apple’s hugely influential software and hardware.
Flat-screen Television: While most science fiction persisted in showing us curved, convex screens, Back to the Future Part II wisely presented the flat screens that would be the norm by 2015.
Public Surveillance: George Orwell’s novel 1984 foretold a totalitarian society in which all citizens were monitored by public cameras tracking their every move. Surveillance cameras are part of our current reality.
Drones: Films like Robocop and Terminator, as well as 1980s shows like Blue Thunder, predicted that small, remote-controlled aircraft would fight our wars and control urban crime, but no one thought they’d become trendy toys. Drones are here to stay.
Private Space Travel: Russia has long been offering space tourism, taking civilians to the limits of the atmosphere aboard MiG-31 aircraft. In the United States, the company SpaceX – one of the first private alternatives to NASA and other government space agencies – first tested its reusable rocket in January 2015.
The End of English?: In Blade Runner, English was no longer the universal language; by 2019, it had been overtaken by Chinese and Arabic. We have four years to see if that actually happens.
We yearn for cities on the moon, the semiotic ghosts of pop culture.
The future that wasn’t
Holograms: We’ve seen them in Star Wars, in Back to the Future Part II and even in the bizarre 1980s television show Automan. In everything from entertainment to personal communications, holograms were supposed to rule the 21st century. The technology has existed since the 1970s, and it isn’t expensive, but the initiatives to mass-produce holograms haven’t been successful enough to elevate it beyond the realm of “retrotech.”
Flying Cars: While hovercrafts fall into this category and, from time to time, a new ultralight hits the market, the fuel cost (for takeoffs) is so high that the whole concept is non-viable.
Personal Helicopters: In the 1950s, Popular Mechanics magazine declared helicopters to be the vehicles of the future. Eye-catching covers depicted businessmen using helicopter backpacks to fly from building to building. Ultimately, this prediction remained a James Bond-style fantasy.
Nuclear Kitchens: Popular Mechanics also predicted that in the 1950s, everything would run on nuclear energy. Each home would have its own reactor, and we’d cook turkeys in plutonium-powered ovens. It’s possible, of course, but only if you want mutants to inherit the Earth.
Supersonic Commercial Aircraft: In the 1960s, the future of commercial air travel was thought to be supersonic flight. The experiences of the French-British Concorde, its Soviet analog (the TU-144) and the abandoned U.S. Boeing 2707, proved that the public preferred cheap mass transport over speed (hence the success of the Airbus family and the Boeing 747). In the 1980s, these dreams of speed returned, and the U.S. started work on transatmospheric vehicles (TAVs): hypersonic aircraft (over Mach 6) for the passengers of the 21st century. While we’re still waiting, the 747 is set to celebrate 50 years of ruling the skies.
Androids: The futurologists of the 1930s and 40s predicted that by the 1980s, we’d be sharing our lives with artificial assistants who would meet our technical and domestic needs. Robots do exist – washing machines are technically robots, after all – but we’re a far cry from a Star Wars’ C3PO taking kids to school.
Bases on the Moon and Mars: According to Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles) and Arthur C. Clarke, by 1995 we should have colonized the moon and Mars. According to the most optimistic estimates, this won’t happen until 2030, at the earliest.
Massive Computers: Clarke and other colleagues suggested that computers the size of buildings would help us run the world. But why bother with a five-story PC when you can have something just as powerful in the palm of your hand? Size does matter, but not in the way they predicted.