Days of Future Past
Our travels can shape tomorrow, if we pay attention and don’t sweat the details
Futurists almost never get it completely right. The broad pictures they paint of the alternative realities they envision may be prescient, maybe even prophetic. But usually the grand panoramas start getting a little murky when you drill down into the details. After all, they say that’s where the Devil is – all those little things that trip you up along the way.
Take a look at any vintage 1930s issue of Popular Mechanics and you’ll see a raft of great ideas that are nowhere near reality today; commuting home from work in your own private gyrocopter and sitting down to a delicious four-course dinner out of a plastic bag. Or consider the trip to the moon aboard the Pan Am space plane in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. While it might have been reasonable in 1968 to expect that such space travel would become commonplace by the turn of the millennium, in fact it hasn’t; 2001 has come and gone, and so has Pan Am.
Sometimes looking back on how futuristic technology has been portrayed feels nostalgic, almost quaint; think reruns of The Six Million Dollar Man or Knight Rider. Other glimpses into the future are more poignant, ironic, even ominous, because we know how the story really turned out. Documentary films from the 1939 New York World’s Fair are sweetly optimistic – what the fair billed as‘The World of Tomorrow.’But the reality of the world of tomorrow in 1939 was Hitler’s invasion of Poland and years of brutal war.
Now, we don’t want to knock the futurists too much. A great many of the Big Ideas they foretold in years past have borne fruit, and are now part of everyday life. Advances in health care and treatments, artificial intelligence and robotics, communications and mobility, all have their parallels, more or less, in the works of novelists, screenwriters and visionaries.
One day many years ago a computer salesman came by the office where I worked to demonstrate the brand-new Apple Lisa. (Yes, kids, I am that old.) For those of you who don’t remember Lisa, it was the precursor to the first wildly popular Macintosh. It had a graphical interface, applications for diverse tasks such as word processors, spreadsheets and even art, and it had – wait for it – a mouse! As the demonstration went on, it dawned on me that if each of us in the office had one of these, we could hook them up with wires – somehow – and trade information back and forth.
Without realizing it, I had just envisioned the Internet. Envisioned, but not invented. Of course that would take years to develop, and millions of hours of toil by thousands of people a whole lot smarter than I am. They were all down there working in the details – you know, where the Devil is. Looking back on it now, what I found interesting was the reaction of the computer salesman. When I told him my idea, he sneered and said:“Why would anybody want to do that?”
In truth we all have a bit of the futurist in us, imagining a world that’s better than the one we presently occupy. But what we can conceive for tomorrow seems always to be trapped by the limitations around us today. That’s where the joy of the journey comes in. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, travel can open up horizons and enlarge our field of vision. And the more we expand our experiences in the here and now, the more our imaginations can take flight.
So next time you’re out on the road, step outside the present and stay alert. The future’s just ahead. BT — Dan Booth Editorial Director