A Look Back at Looking Forward

A LOOK BACK AT LOOKING FORWARD….A few weeks ago Arts & Letters Daily linked to a reprint of “Miracles You’ll See in the Next 50 Years,” an article in the February 1950 edition of Popular Mechanics. It was a charming look forward to the technological utopia of today, written in the kind of bubblingly optimistic tone that you just don’t see any more ? a sad reminder of how dimly even the most optimistic of us view the future compared to that initial generation of postwar romantics.

The article (not available online) contained predictions, of course. Lots of them. So I decided to pull out each of the individual predictions embedded in the text and see how they turned out. The stars of our story are Joe and Jane Dobson, who live in the suburb of Tottenville. Here’s the scorecard:

Prediction

Results as of 2003

It’s a crime to pollute the air with smoke and soot.

Maybe in Tottenville, but smoke and soot remain crime free everywhere else.

In cities, highways are double decked. Upper deck is for nonstop traffic, lower deck is “much like our avenues, with brightly illuminated shops.”

I think we have one freeway in Los Angeles that’s double decked for about four miles. The lower deck, however, is just a freeway. No shops to be seen, brightly illuminated or otherwise

Tottenville is illuminated by “electric suns” on 200 foot towers.

Nope. In fact, I’m not even sure this sounds like a desirable prediction.

Atomic power is not used because it is hopelessly inefficient. It is used only in the cold, sunless north.

Atomic power works fine. France practically runs on the stuff.

The U.S. government began research into solar power in 1949. It is now widely used in America and other sunny, tropical countries.

Solar power has gone nowhere so far. In fact, I think the Bush administration is on the verge of outlawing it.

Atomic powered ocean liners began to run in 1970.

Coincidentally, that’s approximately the date when traditional ocean liners, atomically powered or otherwise, ceased to run at all.

Steel is used only for cutting tools and massive machinery, but has otherwise been replaced.

The steel trust isn’t what it used to be, but we’re still using lots of steel.

Houses are constructed far differently than in 1950, using light metal walls four inches thick with an inch or two of insultating material.

Actually, house construction is disturbingly identical to the way it was done in 1950.

More on housing: all parts are mass produced, cut to size on the spot, and some parts are made of poured plastic. There is no wood, brick, or stone.

Nope.

The Dobsons’ house cost only $5,000 (including furnishings!) and is built to last only 25 years.

Even adjusted for inflation, this is wildly off the mark.

Razors are a thing of the past.

Gillette spends more on razor technology than the Russians spend on securing their nuclear bombs.

No dishwashing machines. Plastic dishes simply dissolve in superheated water.

Wrong on both counts.

Jane cleans the house by just hosing everything off. After all, everything is made of plastic!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a hose in my house.

“Cooking as an art is only a memory.”

Finally! A prediction that’s pretty close to true, at least as far as the average household is concerned.

Soup and milk are delivered in the form of frozen bricks.

I think there was a dotcom based on this idea….

Everyone has an electronic oven. Jane prepares dinner in 30 minutes.

Microwaves are indeed ubiquitous, and if anything this is probably an overestimate of how long most people spend preparing dinner these days.

Sawdust and wood pulp are converted into food. Rayon underwear is converted into candy.

No to the first, and as to the second ? yuck.

Videophones have replaced telephones.

This is possibly the most popular failed prediction of all time. I was originally promised this in the “House of Tomorrow” at Disneyland, but I still don’t have one.

Joe and his fellow businessmen hold “television conferences.”

Half credit. People aren’t “surrounded by half a dozen television screens,” but videoconferencing is definitely an up and coming technology.

Jane does her shopping by television. “Department stores obligingly hold up for her inspection bolts of fabric or show her new styles of clothing.”

Hmmm, not quite. Still, internet shopping has a passing resemblance to this.

Factories are completely automated. “By holes punched in a roll of paper, every operation necessary to produce a helicopter is indicated.”

Well, there is a lot factory automation today, though not quite at this Jetsons-like level. But the holes punched in paper bespeak a delightful ignorance of computers, the one big invention that really has become commonplace by 2003.

The Zworykin-Von Neumann automaton solves thousands of equations per minute to predict the weather.

Thousand of equations per minute is about what my old TI programmable calculator could do, but on the other hand we do have supercomputers that perform weather prediction and even occasionally get it right.

No more storms! Before one has a chance to build up steam, oil is spread on the sea and ignited, causing the storm to dissipate.

This novel idea does not seem to have caught on, although several supertanker captains appear to have been enthusiasts for the first part of this operation.

Bigshots travel in 1000 mph rocket planes. Time to cross Atlantic: 3 hours. Cost: $5,000 from Chicago to Paris.

The Concorde will shut down this year. No rocket planes are in sight. The distance from New York to London continues to be more than 3,000 miles. In any case, if such a flight cost as much as the Dobsons’ house, these flights would cost a quarter million bucks each. Even Bill Gates would think twice.

Nobody has yet circumnavigated the moon in a “rocket space ship.”

Hell, not only have we landed on the moon, Venus, and Mars, we’ve circumnavigated the entire solar system and gone beyond it. When last heard from, Pioneer 10 was about 4 billion miles outside the solar sytem.

Cities have grown into regions. It’s hard to tell where one city ends and another begins.

Another winner! Here in California, you truly need to have sharp eyes to know when you’ve crossed a city boundary.

Cars run on denatured alcohol and are used only for journeys of less than 20 miles. The family helicopter is used for other travel.

Sigh….

Commuters get into the city on aerial busses that hold 200 passengers.

That would be nice, but if this had come to pass then why did we also need double decked highways?

Fax has replaced telegrams.

Well, sort of….

Tuberculosis is easily cured.

No it isn’t.

Wrinkles and sagging cheeks are a thing of the past. Lifespan is now 85 years.

If this had been a prediction of widespread plastic surgery, it would count as a successful prediction. Sadly, it wasn’t. The lifespan prediction isn’t too far off the mark, though.

Viral diseases such as the common cold are cured with ease.

Don’t I wish.

Cancer is not yet curable.

A correct negative prediction. But why was the author so pessimistic?

Nerve diseases such as Parkinson’s are cured by a battery driven apparatus carried in the pocket.

Huh?

In the end, the microwave oven is really the only 100% correct prediction out of the whole mess, although the author also gets points for weather prediction and suburban sprawl, and perhaps half credit for “television shopping” and factory automation.

What’s more remarkable, though, is that the article fails to predict practically all the things that really did happen: computers, the internet, cell phones, satellites, cable TV, the fall of communism, and light beer. So while on its merits it might get a score of, say, 5 out of 100, when you add in the negative failures its score is probably more like -1000 or so.

This is a pretty stunning performance, but in a remarkable act of self-referential meta-prediction, it turns out that the article actually predicts its own failure:

The only obstacles to accurate prophecy are the vested interests, which may retard progress for economic reasons, tradition, conservatism, labor-union policies and legislation.

In other words, it’s all the fault of the Democrats and the Republicans. Maybe we should all become libertarians after all.

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