The future is unknowable, but that hasn’t stopped prognosticators from trying to imagine what’s in store for us a few decades, or even a few millennia, from now. Popular culture has envisioned a future both utopian (think George Jetson and moving sidewalks) and bleak (like Mike Judge’s cult film Idiocracy). But, whether optimistic or dystopian, visions of the future are rarely right — in fact, most of these predictions are wrong, often hilariously so.
Paul Milo has produced an exhaustive compendium of predictions of the future in his highly readable, often laugh-out-loud funny book Your Flying Car Awaits
. Suitable for dipping into or reading all the way through, it looks at predictions in a wide range of areas — from the future of health and travel to the prospects of nuclear energy and space exploration. The insights are as vast as the predictions are head-scratching. (Jet powered cars? Talking dolphins? Come on.)
If we were to make a guess, we’d say Milo has assembled the most comprehensive repository of far-fetched forecasts and wild speculation ever put on paper. We’ve assembled some our of favorites below — some of which we’re glad remained in the realm of science fiction, and others we wish would still come to pass. Feel free to tell us in the comments what you think the future holds.
Things we’re glad didn’t happen
Paving the Amazon rainforest: At the 1964 World’s Fair, plans were unveiled for an atomic-powered road builder capable of laying pavement at the rate of twenty miles a day. This machine could create highways in the jungles of the Amazon, an area of the Earth whose biological significance was not yet appreciated. And who was behind this invention? None other than General Motors. Luckily, the road-builder never made it past the blueprint phase, but GM still got its wish: today it sells close to a million vehicles a year in South America.
The Algae Burger: Ever since the time of Malthus, philosophers and economists alike have predicted a time when demand for food would outstrip production. If indeed that came to pass, scientists were, by the mid-twentieth century, researching a solution to ameliorate mass starvation: algae. That slimy green stuff, it turns out, is an incredibly efficient way to deliver calories. Fortunately, food is still plentiful (and we are eating too much of it) so we have, for now, at least, evaded this unappetizing fate.
Paper clothing: At mid-century, Americans were obsessed with disposable items. Everything from dishware (now common) to sofas (unimaginable) would be suitable for discarding. Even clothes made from paper were thought to be the garments of the future. But aside from occasional Project Runway challenge, paper clothing never really took off. Another fashion trend for women predicted at mid-century still might: nakedness. Given the plunging necklines and skimpy fabric of modern women’s clothes, it’s not hard to imagine a time in the near future when we give up the illusion of modesty and just let it all hang out.
The Outmoding of Pregnancy: In the early 1920s, a Scottish geneticist predicted that by 1968 fewer than a third of children in England would be born of a woman. The other two-thirds? They’d be grown in laboratories, of course. While technology has advanced to allow conception outside the womb (indeed, the first so-called test tube baby now has a baby of her own), every human on this planet spent at least some time inside one. Even though IVF has become commonplace, ectogenic babies, thankfully, have not. Children are still brought into this world the old-fashioned way.
Things we wish had
The fifteen-hour work week: John Maynard Keynes, making headlines these days as the grandfather of the economic stimulus package, wrote in the ’30s that automation would have by now made all of our lives so much simpler, there would be little actual work left to do. And for those lucky enough to get it, we’d work only about fifteen hours a week. Though his government-intervention policies may still have currency, this prediction unfortunately does not. In fact, if anything, at the beginning of the twentieth-first century, we’re working more hours and making less money doing it. The forty-hour work week still reigns (except in France, where it’s capped at thirty-five), but a five day weekend sounds like something to strive for.
The electric car: Surely by now we should be able to fuel our cars with something other than dinosaur remains. But yet the elusive electric car, debated and discarded for more than a century, is still not commonplace. As far back as 1910, electric cars were making short trips within cities (of course, there was no highway system yet, so quick jaunts were perfect for the short battery life). And though enthusiasm for the technology petered out until the oil crisis of the 1970s, the technology, if not the demand, has existed for decades. Now hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles are a common sight on our country’s roads, but fully electric cars aren’t. Perhaps the introduction of vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt will finally bring us into a future that was available a hundred years ago.
Living in a dome: After record snowfall this winter in large swaths of the country, who wouldn’t want to live in a climate-controlled utopia where snow shovels are a relic of the uncivilized past? Futurist Buckminster Fuller, the father of fanciful geometric structures like the enormous golf ball at the center of Disney’s Epcot Center, envisioned a world in which Canada would become known for its year-round tropical weather thanks to a climate-control dome. He even proposed building one a mile-high and two-miles wide to encapsulate Manhattan. Unfortunately, domed cities never caught on (for one, they would be very difficult to maintain) but Fuller and his visionary ideas remain celebrated today.
War is over, if you want it: Ever since there have been humans, there have been wars. Is fighting part of our genetic make-up? It might seem so, given we still prefer to settle conflicts with guns instead of diplomacy. But some thought we would have laid down our arms by now. Philosopher and psychologist William James predicted in 1910 that war would soon be “absurd.” Other forecasters predicted world powers joining forces to combat intangible evils like hunger and illness. Still more anticipated peace in the Middle East. Alas, war, despite what John Lennon said, isn’t over yet.