Visions of Futures Past
February, 2012

There’s an email making the rounds showing the anti-gravity hoverboard that Marty McFly rode in Back to The Future, Part 2. It alerts “Scientists, you have three years,” meaning that people are expecting to scoot around on their new hoverboards by 2015, as the movie predicted. The movie also showed a giant 3D Jaws shark leaping out of the theater to menace passersby. While 3D is making another comeback, I don’t see a giant shark, or anything else, jumping out of the Maya Theater to gobble up people on their way to the Steinbeck Center. I really don’t think it’ll happen between now and 2015, either.

The trouble with the future isn’t that it’s hard to predict (just ask Jim Vanderzwaan), it’s that the future never seems to pan out like screenwriters, politicians and other ersatz futurists say it will.

Genius politicians told us global warming would lead to Waterworld. In the 1970s global cooling was plunging us into an Ice Age. The population bomb, World War III, oil spill Armageddon, not to mention the end of the world, previously noted in this column, were all supposed to have exterminated us by now. By 2001, we were supposed to have manned missions to Jupiter. By 2010, only two years ago, we were supposed to return to Jupiter to find out what happened to Dave, HAL and the rest of the crew in 2001. The dark vision of replicants and off-world colonies described in Blade Runner takes place in 2019, so we still have a little time to come up with flying police cars and a pidgin language called “Cityspeak.”

Then there was 1984, 28 years ago! We’re now numbly living Orwell’s vision of society gone mad. Our other required futurist reading, Brave New World, takes place in a yet far off year 682 AF (After Ford). Regardless, we’re enjoying Huxley’s vision of the death of human freedom just as meekly as we marched, Eloi-like, to Super Bowl broadcasts last Sunday.

Way back in 1971, I participated in a futurist project at General Motors in Detroit. A small group of us far-thinking wiz kids were assigned to conceive the “transportation system of the future,” replete with every kind of vehicle and alternative technology that would be needed in our New Utopia. We were given an entire city, Troy, Michigan, to use as our inspiration and laboratory. Afterwards, of course, we’d hand over the keys to the future to our benevolent corporate masters at GM. A better world for all mankind would inevitably follow.

Young and naïve, we were pressured daily by veteran engineers and design executives to turn our futuristic visions into Chevrolets and Pontiacs. In the end, the VP of Design solemnly prophesied to the assembled press that “the future of transportation in this country will be rubber-tired vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.” We’d been had, but he was quite right.

But here’s the rub:  the future we were aiming for in 1971 was no more distant than 1990! Well, now that 1990 has come and long gone, I can say with absolute certainty that yesterday’s future looks pretty much like today's past. None of the magnetic levitations, city streets without trucks, or transporter beams ever made it to production. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis still uses taxis, buses and subways to get worker drones to their machines. Very few of the slick urban transit systems ever happened (Vegas has a nice one). We’re still waiting for BART to make it to San Jose, and commuters from Salinas to the Bay Area still have to take a normal old bus to Gilroy to catch a normal old train.