The future that never happened
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.