When my brother was down from Brisbane recently we visited my parents and took the opportunity to go through the stuff in the shed. Both of us have, over the years, salvaged most of our treasured childhood loot but we still have many boxes stashed away. From among the school books, stamp collections and “licky-down books” we unearthed a 1979 Rigby Usborne publication entitled: The World of the Future: Future Cities by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis. The front page boasts of “Colonies in Space”, “Solar heated houses”, “Amazing sports” and “Wristwatch TV,” while the salient image is of a sizeable city on the moon, housed in three glass domes. This rather optimistic publication proved to be a time capsule in its own right and was great grist to the mill of one of my favourite subjects – past visions of the future.
This very idea of imagining how things will look in the future is a relatively recent concept. Most medieval Europeans looked more to the past and sighed at their small stature before the glories of Rome, while in East Asia at the same time, despite advanced technical innovation, societies looked inward, more interested in maintaining traditions than imagining a vastly different future. People certainly dreamed of greater prosperity, but this vision was likely just a wealthier version of the present society, without wholly new technologies and innovations.
It is only really since the late Renaissance and the industrial revolution that we have more broadly imagined the idea of a future in which societies were far more advanced technologically. There have long been people who thought up and, in some cases, implemented, radical social shifts, alongside more fantastical, idealistic utopias, but in recent times these ideas have become more wedded to technologies not yet invented or those in a nascent form which promised immense change. Our rate of technical advancement reached such an extreme in the 20th century that, in 1970, Alvin Toffler coined the term “Futureshock” in his book of the same title, which basically posited that humanity was experiencing a psychological condition of culture shock caused by “too much change in too short a period of time.” So accustomed did we become to the whirlwind of advancement and the expectation of radical societal shifts that we were able to imagine an entirely different world emerging within a single generation.
These past visions of the future are fascinating in the way they reveal our inevitable naivety as much as our impressive ambition. They show us not only the overzealous hopes of our imagination, but also its limitations. How quaint and pathetic seems the idea of wrist-watch TV, compared to the miraculous multifunctionality of contemporary smart devices. Yet, how utterly ludicrous the idea of a city of ten thousand people orbiting the Earth is in contrast to the three astronauts presently occupying the International Space Station. As for solar-heated houses, at least they were right on this score. Though we may not yet live in a world where we all have solar panels on our roofs, it is a well-established technology with increasingly rapid uptake.
This last prediction sits with several other sensible and well-considered ideas, which are probably best illustrated in the double-spread “A House of the Future.”
This suggests that future houses will rely increasingly on renewables, such as wind and solar; that our communications will increasingly take place via satellite; that we will be driving electric cars and that many home functions might be controlled by a central computer. While electric cars might be slowly arriving, what we now call “the internet of things” – the interconnection of practical electronic devices like fridges, washing machines, dryers, air conditioning – hasn’t really taken off, despite years of talk.
Over the page, the arrival of flat-screen, wall-mounted televisions is rightly predicted, though their date of the late 1980s is now recognisably far-fetched. The clunky “TV telephone,” the enormous home computer unit with its antiquated buttons and the drink-dispensing robot reveal, once again, the limitations of our imagination, most obvious in the total absence of anything like the internet.
Whereas the “Risto” – a digital watch with unattractive antennae poking out on four sides – is promoted as a “wrist-watch, radio-telephone” that could be used for electronic voting, secure police communication and as a panic-button in emergencies. They also suggest that by “punching out an enquiry number” a lost person could “ask for guidance back to the nearest town.” While the idea that the Risto would rely on something similar to the GPS satellite array is certainly on the money, the inability to conceive of anything as all-encompassing as the internet, makes this all seem rather dull.
Perhaps inevitably, the most glaring over-optimism in this book lies in our imagined future in space. Just as Bladerunner, made in 1983, expected much of humanity to be living in off-world colonies by 2019, so this book suggests that the 2020 Olympics might take place on the moon. Unfortunately for the dreamers of the past, the Tokyo games will be all too sublunary.
The authors also posit a skyscraper that stretches all the way into space, with vast tubes up which people might travel in shuttles fired along see-through vacuum tubes; a city of 10, 000 people orbiting Earth in one of the gravitationally neutral Lagrange points; space-shuttle refuelling stations; a huge city on the moon with an already well-established industrial sector firing materials into space to build further orbital cities. It goes without saying that none of this has happened, not even remotely.
I’ve written elsewhere about how long I expect it will be before any significant human presence is established outside of the Earth – more likely hundreds of years than decades. Sure, a long-desired observatory on the far side of the moon might be possible, and maybe we’ll see five or six people on Mars, but none of this is likely to happen before the second half of the 21st century and, even then, at a stretch. It must be noted however that my projections are based on current levels of investment and the rate of realisation of necessary technologies, whereas, coming off the crest of the Moonshot and Space Race, had the levels of funding that went into the Apollo program been sustained, I suspect we’d at least have several larger space stations orbiting the Earth by now and some sort of minor, token presence on the moon. None of these, however, would be even remotely on the scale proposed in this book.
Probably the most silly idea of all, despite coming initially from Carl Sagan, is that of seeding Venus with bacteria and algae to feed on the carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases that blanket the planet, eventually producing enough oxygen to cause water-rain to fall. “It will not get as far as the surface, boiling to steam before it gets there,” say the authors. “But each time it rains, surface temperatures drop a little.” Eventually, they suggest, increasingly heavy rain will scrub the noxious gases from the atmosphere and allow a more Earth-like climate to develop there. I love this idea, but it seems little more than a pipe-dream, as is evident when taking into account all the other problems we would face in making Venus even remotely habitable. Carl Sagan himself later shot down his own plan, in the wake of a more sophisticated understanding of Venus’ atmosphere.
Finally, though it appears relatively early in the book, there is a double spread which posits two possible futures for the inhabitants of Earth – the “Garden city on a cared-for planet” or the “polluted city of a dying world.”
I’d like to think that, in the developed world at least, we are moving increasingly towards the garden city idea, but the stubborn persistence in burning fossil fuels, the scale of the human population, the stupidity of post-truth polities who repeatedly elect neo-conservative capitalists intent on burning up the entire planet in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe, makes that future very uncertain indeed. The authors were indeed right about one thing – that it is advancements in technology and increasingly clean and efficient practices which will ensure a better future for us all. I salute their positive vision of a cleaner, greener Earth, which is, in many ways, coming true at a grass-roots level if not at the all-important level of government. Fingers-crossed, the worst-case scenarios of our present visions of the future won’t come to pass, and several decades from now, we’ll be able to chuckle at those pictures of a stifling, suffering world of hunger, conflict and inequality.