The future that never happened

Posted in books, future, reviews by thenextwavefutures on 14 May, 2007

Where’s my jetpack cover

Salon has a good review by Simon Reynolds of Where’s my Jetpack – a recently published book in the US about what happened to many of the future technologies promised during the last fifty years or so. The answer, mostly, is:

(a) people are still working on them, but they’re unfeasibly expensive (colonies on the moon) or
(b) they’re unfeasibly dangerous (how to design a jetpack which doesn’t scorch its user on take-off) or
(c) it’s feasible but they never caught on, because consumers don’t buy it, literally or metaphorically (‘cultured’ or lab-grown meat, smell-o-vision, for example).

But the most interesting part of the review is Reynolds’ reflections on the failure of cultural and social futures to catch the imagination.

He has a lightning canter through the history of futures studies, noting that it came to life when people still believed that the state could make a difference, and – in terms of popular visibility – reached a peak with Alvin Toffler, “but Toffler was just the most visible exponent of a bustling paperback subgenre of ‘popular thought.'” If the 90s saw a brief flurry of optimistic techno-futurism – Wired, Mondo 2000, and so on – it deflated pretty quickly around 2001. Anyone now for Peter Schwartz and his long boom?

Reynolds’ most depressing observations are about the failure of futures to make a difference to our cultural and social imagination, and the “drastic deceleration in the rate of social and cultural progress”. He has a stimulating riff on some of the SF and feminist ideas of the 60s and 70s about gender, only to conclude that:

“… these are about gender, just one zone of stalled progress or outright regression. Race, gay rights, drugs, socioeconomic equality, religion — on just about every front, things either are not nearly as advanced as we’d have once expected or have actually gone into reverse. Forget the goddamn jetpack: It’s the sociocultural version of the “amazing future that never arrived” that really warrants our anguish.”

Where’s my Jetpack? is published in the UK in November.

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