An older coworker recently marveled at the arrival of 2010. She couldn’t believe it, she said, because it sounded so futuristic. The transition between the end of a year and the beginning of the next is always the time for looking back and reflecting, and as the highlights of the year give way to the inevitable low-lights, talk of the future brings the hope the tragedies and failures of the year threaten to crush. Even though the year is barely upon us, there are some things we can accurately predict will happen in 2010: the US will hold mid-term congressional elections, famous people will die and terrible things will happen all over the world.
Okay, so my crystal ball is good at vagary, but there are others who’ve made looking to the future a career, and author Paul Milo collects some of their wildest, not to mention completely incorrect, predictions in this fun, entertaining book. Early on, Milo notes his entire book could have taken the view of the future from popular culture, the premise being that shows like Star Trek and even The Jetsons have shown us fantastic, hopeful visions of the future in which automation and innovation brought peace and comfort to the world.
Though it’s an interesting subject, exploring the already-imagined world of science fiction is much different than predictions based on innovations happening contemporaneously with the futurists Milo features. Things like moving sidewalks and regrowing lost limbs weren’t just far out ideas dreamed up by writers, these were actual visions of the future. That’s not to say fiction and reality don’t cross. The flying car of the title is a fixture in many science fiction stories, but it’s also a genuine innovation that’s been in perpetual development almost since the first horseless buggy took to the road.
Milo’s book is effortlessly funny. By simply stating the facts of some seriously held beliefs, like a woman being able to deliver a child without using her body, we can laugh at how far off the mark some of these ideas were. Alternately, the books is also sad, because many positive ideas, like the end of poverty and war, are as far from a reality today as is living on the moon. Milo doesn’t disrespect or condescend toward any of the ideas in the book, otherwise it might read like a smug cynic complaining about life without his jet pack. Still, there’s a playful quality to much of the book, a nudge to the reader asking, “Can you believe this?”
The book is broken into little sections that are quick and concise but never lacking in detail or depth. Each chapter covers topics like transportation, health care, outer space and even the end of the world. There’s a sameness in all the sections because the stories are nearly all the same: someone made a prediction we’d have X by a given year, and that year has since come and gone without the arrival of the innovation. Despite the sameness, the sheer number of predictions is staggering. Milo attributes this to “a time when Americans seemed to dream bigger…Many thinkers believed we could, in effect, do almost anything we desired, and without any consequences.”
We’re learning the consequences of some of the 20th century’s innovations now, with global warming a topic on the minds of people all over the world. Electric cars are again creating a buzz amongst drivers, but they’ve been promised to us by futurists for years, as far back as the beginning of the last century. Should we be angry that we don’t have flying electric cars and that we can’t grow new limbs for veterans or that fossil fuels still dominant the world’s energy market? Should we just wait it out and hope for a better tomorrow? Milo’s answer to those questions is that just because something is a good idea, it doesn’t mean it will get done, and that “sometimes tomorrow is better, sometimes worse, sometimes about the same.”