The Future of Yesterday – When Futurists Got it Wrong

Even as 2012 arrives and uncertainty about the future abounds, technology is getting more incredible by the month.  And yet even as the trend of broad strides toward high tech continues, there have been many attempts by the past to look into the future with open minds and open hearts.  And as these hopeful images of the future past are played again, maybe we can get some idea of which technologies of today may be made manifest tomorrow – and which ones might be forever fantasy.  Here are a few examples of how yesterdays prognosticators got it all wrong – and a few uncannily accurate predictions as well.

When we look for what life might be like in twenty or fifty years, very often we turn to scientists of the day, emerging technologies, film, and books.  But as our Escapes from New York, our Space Odysseys, and others pass us by there have been more than a few eerily accurate predictions that were seen as preposterously fantastic in their own days.  And just as technology has failed to meet a few expectations in some ways, it has wildly exceeded them in others.

In 1900 a German postcard began circulating displaying some of the fantastic inventions that would be available to the worthy generation to reach the year 2000.  Among them was a bizarre portrayal of an officer of the law looking through a lens which had an X-ray attached to it which allowed him to see a bank robbery in progress.  Keep in mind that the X-ray was only 13 years earlier being explored by famed inventor Nikola Tesla, and would become known as Rontgen Photography by the year 1896.  To predict almost to the exact year when something similar would be used by the TSA and law enforcement was no small task for the anonymous maker of a postcard.

But not all failed predictions were made by such anonymous figures.  And some of them would later eat their words throughout the rest of their careers.  For instance, famed actor Charlie Chaplain predicted that film as a medium was nothing more than a fad and would soon be replaced by an increase in stage actors as the novelty of the technology passed.  Chaplain went on to lead one of the most successful film careers in history, carried by an invention he said would be nothing more than a fad.

Albert Einstein, the famed physicist said to be one of the most intelligent men ever born was quoted in 1932 saying that nuclear power would never be attainable by human hands as it would require the splitting of the atom by will.  Years later that very act was achieved.

Of course we also hear of the predictions made during the height of scientific prediction and spread through technological means once said impossible to the masses.  Space flight was seen as impossible, but then given a premature manifest destiny so that even the great science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke portrayed space travel as commonplace in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So what is it about predicting the future that these trends have in common?  It seems the imagination of human kind is limitless in its potential, but the actual application of the technology has to both be feasible and fill a need that no other simpler technology can convey with the same sort of efficiency.  So when we look at a future of flying cars and instant teleportation, perhaps we can look to the past to tell us which of our own predictions are destined to succeed and which are less likely to be realized.