Days of Fu­ture Past

Our trav­els can shape to­mor­row, if we pay at­ten­tion and don’t sweat the de­tails

Business Traveler (USA) - - TALKING POINT -

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

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