It’s 2010

Ready to communicate with dolphins? Take a spin in your flying car? Unfortunately, the future doesn’t always turn out as predicted.

It’s 2010 (Steve Wacksman for The Boston Globe)
By Paul Milo
December 27, 2009

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With just days left in the year, you might be trying out a few cool things you expect to use in 2010 - an e-reader, a talking GPS system, mittens wired to run your iPod. But it’s a fair bet that there are some things you won’t have. You won’t have an electric butler to rouse you on New Year’s Day. You won’t climb into your flying car that morning. You won’t be chowing down on your food pill for a recuperative breakfast. It’s likely to be chilly - miserable, even - thanks to the lack of a climate-controlled geodesic dome over your town. And while you may be planning a Vermont ski trip for February, you’re not going to be jetting to a Malaysian beach for the day, or relaxing at an orbiting space hotel.

If you had told this to an audience in 1930, or even 1970, they would have been shocked. Decades ago, it was virtually taken for granted that average people would regularly be traveling to space, robots would be doing all the household chores, and our steaks would be in capsule form. Even the most pessimistic folks would have guessed that by now we would be able to fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo in two hours.

The world we’re about to enter, in 2010, may be radically more advanced, technologically, than a generation ago - just this month, a British firm began selling the first prosthetic bionic fingers, for instance - but it is still a far cry from the future as it was once imagined. And the reasons why we didn’t get that future - why we have pocket phones that hold a thousand books, but can’t buy a simple jetpack no matter how hard we look - suggest some important insights about why we predict the things we do and why when we try to predict tomorrow, we sometimes get things so laughably wrong.

Construction nukes
Decades ago, when scientists learned to split the atom, the feat brought not only the threat of nuclear apocalypse but also the promise of boundless energy - a new, golden age where electricity would be “too cheap to meter,” as the phrase went. In the ’50s, not surprisingly, the US government undertook a plan to emphasize the upside. Its nuclear development program, “Atoms for Peace,” included the ultimately successful attempt to create nuclear power plants. It also included the less well known “Project Plowshare,” an effort to use atomic explosions in titanic construction projects. If dynamite was good for demolition, the thinking went, wouldn’t nukes be better?

The Nevada desert today is peppered with 50-year-old craters that were created in testing the feasibility of using A-bombs as giant earth movers. There was a plan to carve out a bay in Alaska, as well as to widen the Panama and other canals. The Russians, who had their own equivalent of Plowshare, were particularly interested in using atomic bombs for oil and gas mining.

The effort eventually foundered, pretty much for the reasons you would expect - engineers were never able to guarantee the public’s safety from radioactive fallout. But Project Plowshare had another, implied goal, too. The United States - with thousands of warheads, and the only country that had ever actually dropped a nuclear bomb - was trying to show the world that nuclear weapons could improve human lives and not just claim them. Whether that was accomplished is an open question.

The three-day workweek
By the 1960s, America had achieved unprecedented wealth and had created the largest middle class in history. At the same time, entire categories of employment were vanishing, as more and more functions in offices and factories became automated and computerized. Meanwhile, the public sector was becoming an ever-larger part of the economy. Throw all of these trends into the hopper and what came out was a big prediction about work: that by now, we would all need to labor a lot less.

The 40-hour workweek, mandated during the Great Depression, was supposed to have been winnowed down to 30 hours, or even 20. We were all supposed to be retiring just around the time the first flecks of gray began to appear in the mirror.

A study dating from the mid-1960s estimated that by the early 21st century all of the nation’s work could be performed by just 2 percent of the population. A city planner named William Wheaton predicted in 1968 that by now, thanks to incredibly generous wages, we would be able to earn a lifetime’s worth of salary in just 10 years, and proceed to enjoy a comfortable retirement that lasted for decades. A Wall Street Journal article declared that marriages would be stronger as husbands spent less time at work and more time at home with their wives. Some experts assumed that America would grow so wealthy it would disburse “living wages,” salaries awarded simply because you were drawing a level breath.

In one sense, the average American of 2009 is wealthier than his equivalent from 1969: Technological improvements have bestowed upon us a much greater variety of entertainment, far more reliable cars, cheaper and more plentiful food. More of us are working in relatively pleasant offices instead of on noisy, fuming assembly lines. Other of life’s pleasures, like air travel, are less expensive, too.

But that all has to be weighed against the fact that our working lives, if anything, are getting longer. A husband coming home early today would likely find his wife still at work. The nation’s Social Security system will collapse unless there are additional increases in the retirement age. A thriving economy, it turns out, means more - not less - work for everyone. And as for the government taking care of us all - well, let’s just say that living wage check is still in the mail.

Chatting with dolphins
As scientists realized that the break between humans and other animals wasn’t nearly as distinct as once believed, they became more and more curious about animal behavior, even animal psychology. One of those researchers, John Lilly, speculated that if we could only figure out the lingo, human beings should be able to one day talk to dolphins and whales.

By the early 1960s, Lilly was regarded as a brilliant conventional scientist; he would later gain notoriety for developing the isolation tank and championing the use of LSD. Fascinated by the clicks and wails of dolphin communication, Lilly built a partly submerged laboratory in the Virgin Islands where his assistant, Margaret Howe, spent months living with the animals virtually round the clock, trying to discern the basics of cetacean-ese. Lilly’s books describing his research were bestsellers, and a ’60s TV show, “Flipper” - about a dolphin who befriends a family living on the shores of a Florida lagoon - clearly was inspired at least in part by Lilly.

The results of his experiments, as Lilly himself admitted, were inconclusive. But the spirit survived in others’ efforts to teach chimps and gorillas to talk, or at least to sign a basic vocabulary. Today, many believe that only humans possess a grammar sophisticated enough to express abstract queries like “what if?” But other researchers have noted that the brains of cetaceans, primates, and even some birds are far more complex than previously imagined, and are withholding judgment, for now, about the limits of nonhuman intelligence.

Lilly had bigger goals, though - he wanted to convince the public that animals live in civilizations as flawed and grand as our own, and that slaughtering them amounts to massacring a more primitive culture. Back in the ’60s, Lilly was at the vanguard. Today, though, if you eschew fur and your cosmetics are cruelty-free, you are, in a sense, indebted to a man who once tried to converse with the dolphins.

The flying car
Nothing says “future” quite like the flying car. Since the earliest years of the 20th century, the flying car has seemed the next logical step for a nation captivated by the romance of unfettered mobility, a machine that would let us zip above the rooftops just to go to the grocery store or the dry cleaner.

A 1909 article in Harper’s Weekly described a very near future in which thousands would be heading to the opera in their sky cars, the traffic directed by a hovering sky cop. In the 1950s, a Popular Mechanics cover featured a suburban dad in a fedora soaring above his tidy suburban home, the little woman looking up and waving him off to work. Even as recently as the 1990s, marketing guru Faith Popcorn predicted that a flying car “in every driveway” was “just around the corner.”

So where are our flying cars? The stumbling block hasn’t been technological. Good prototypes have been around for decades, and one contemporary entrepreneur, Paul Moller, is making considerable progress towards an affordable “sky car.” But it will take a lot more than a lone visionary to usher in the era of mass, personal airborne transportation.

We tend to forget it now, but building the nation’s conventional roads took decades and trillions of dollars, and it would require an effort nearly as great to build “sky highways” - we’d need thousands more highly trained air-traffic controllers, for starters. The cars themselves would have to be built to a much higher, and therefore much more expensive, standard - if my poky Dodge breaks down, I can pull over to the side of the road, but if the same thing happened in my flying Dodge, I would be the road. Could millions of people really earn a pilot’s license? The lesson of the flying car is that scale matters. The technology can certainly be made to work, but making it work for everybody is a very different problem.

Marriage a trois (or more)
Marriage as we know it now is not the timeless, immutable institution it has often been made out to be. For much of human history, wedded unions were matters of commerce as much as anything; the modern idea that people should pair off with romantic partners is only a few centuries old, and even today isn’t universal.

Forty years ago, however, many believed that by now, there would be a lot more choices on the Western matrimony menu, starting with polygamy. In a 1962 novel by Robert Rimmer, “The Harrad Experiment,” college students practice free love and open relationships; later in the decade he expanded upon this idea, championing plural unions as the perfect antidote to the “stifling” monogamous relationship. If this sounds fantastic, consider the context: The then-new birth control pill had changed family life forever, and the Playboy-lifestyle “swinger” was just emerging. For a time, Rimmer had millions of mostly young adherents.

Other thinkers expected that by now, wedding vows would no longer include “till do death us part.” Instead, serial matrimony would be the norm, with young people entering into legal but short-term “trial marriages.” And child rearing, too, would become more flexible - the psychologist and author B.F. Skinner believed that biological parents weren’t necessarily the people best suited to rearing their offspring. Instead, Skinner believed, parents and children should seek each other out based on their compatibility.

That none of these has really taken hold doesn’t mean that the evolution of family life has stopped. There are same-sex unions now, and far more unmarried couples with children - an arrangement not long ago derided as “living in sin.” Yet at the same time, there has been a considerable backlash against the free-love movement. Many adults today were the children of divorce, and do not look back on the experience fondly. These people have, in a sense, recommitted themselves to the idea of “traditional” marriage that was near universal back in the Ozzie and Harriet 1950s. There’s a lesson here for prospective futurists: Sometimes, when the culture sees the next wave on the horizon, it runs the other way.

Artificial ocean
Today the Amazon rain forest is considered a natural resource almost unequaled on the planet, but in the 1960s, many experts merely saw an overgrown wilderness waiting to be exploited.

In the late 1960s, a think tank, the Hudson Institute, aired a proposal to create an ocean the size of Germany smack in the middle of the fat, upper half of South America. The plan would have included six additional bodies of water, each about the size of Lake Ontario, all strung together by waterways to accommodate shipping. The idea was to create a massive transport link that connected the Atlantic and Pacific and gave easy access to the mineral wealth of the continent. As a side benefit, Colombia, Brazil, and the other neighboring nations could get cheap, reliable hydroelectric power from dozens of new waterfalls.

Interestingly, this exercise in planetary remodeling would have been achieved using fairly cheap, low-tech methods: simple earthen dams to stop up the Amazon and other rivers, letting the area - a large natural depression - simply fill up with water. Around the same time, the Russians were also thinking of building their own sea, by damming the Ob and Yenisey rivers.

But as these ambitions took hold, something else did, too: an appreciation that man’s actions could have serious and unplanned consequences for the natural world. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, where flammable chemicals had been dumped for decades, caught fire one day in June 1969. A short time later, the United States would create the Environmental Protection Agency. Soon, massive engineering projects were vetted not just for their feasibility but for their potential impact on the planet. In the face of such considerations, the South American ocean was doomed: Aside from its environmental effects, a French scientist estimated that the weight of so much water so close to the equator could actually slow the rotation of the earth itself.

Paul Milo is the author of ”Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, And other Dead-Wrong Predictions of the Twentieth Century.”