Where’s the future we were promised?

by Jeff Wiener on January 27, 2015

It has taken me a few weeks into the New Year to really start to formulate my thoughts on this matter, but as the calendar flipped to 2015 I really began to wonder about the limitless possibilities for technological development we all envisioned a few decades ago, and, given what I see now, wondering where that promised future has gone.

Blame trailblazing scientists, visionary film directors, or even prophetic science fiction writers throughout the latter part of the 20th century, but I’ll admit that 30 years ago I thought that 2015 would look a whole lot different than it does now. I mean, where’s my holographic communicator, my hover car, my quick shuttle to the Moon? As I look around I still see a human species still hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels, one still constrained to this particular terrestrial body, one still using relatively the same communication platforms; thinking, communicating, and manoeuvring our way through this world in much the same way we did when I was young.

Now granted there have been areas of monumental technological advances, but admittedly those seem relatively few and far between, with most of our most brilliant minds and forward-thinking companies working on incremental upgrades to the things we use now rather than dreaming up the things we’ll use tomorrow. So again I ask, where’s the future we were promised?

As one journalist writes, with man venturing into space, mastering the skies, finding ways to harness the atom, and developing revolutionary computing technology, the mid to late 20th century was a time of boundless optimism, as if “Mankind seemed to be one step away from becoming Masters of the Universe.” That optimism certainly existed in my youth, as advances in computing and telecommunications promised a world connected; the foundation for a future of limitless potential and unabated progress.

But instead the reality we currently enjoy is one defined by incremental upgrades, iterated advancement that seeks to build on what has come before, with true paradigm altering developments existing few and far between. The reason behind this seemingly stagnated pace of development isn’t hard to find, however, as it has everything to do with money (and a little to do with safety).

The problem with most forward thinking, paradigm altering advancements is not that they’re impossible, or even unnecessary, but simply that they’re not commercially viable, that is, they’re not necessary enough and they cost too much to implement and develop. While such advances can sometimes make it to the prototype stage, developing enough hype to garner early investors, most projects never make it into production, as it’s simple too expensive to do so. That’s why hover cars, hover trains, supersonic air flight, and interplanetary travel all remain on the shelf, not because they’re impossible, but because they’re expensive and offer little financial return for such a monumental investment.

But the lack of commercial incentive for most technological dreams isn’t the only inhibitor to the future we were promised, safety plays a role as well. It never really helps mass adoption when paradigm altering technologies simply end up killing people, as the world saw with visionary transport projects like the Hindenburg zeppelin. Sure it can be a good idea, one that is cost effective, protects vital resources, and meets a need of the public, but if it remains a threat to public safety it’s likely to remain a pipedream for a very long time. It’s for this reason that the airline and automotive industries have remained relatively stagnant over the past several decades, as safety standards have homogenized such industries, inhibiting truly revolutionary upgrades in design, operation, and function.

But in the end the great thing about dreams is that they don’t necessarily have a shelf-life, so while 2015 likely won’t be the year we see hoverboards and flying cars or start shuttling the general public to cities on the Moon, there’s nothing to say that we can’t keep dreaming about such a futuristic reality, imaging what the world will look like in 2030 and beyond.

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