Futures Past
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 1/1/14

The future has been coming at us a long time, and for at least two centuries there’s been endless speculation about what it will look like. But visionaries of the past have scored as many misses as hits. We landed on the moon, yes, but teleportation, for example, may never prove possible. In all likelihood, the world to come will be neither as rosy nor as dark as the scientists and sci-fi prophets have predicted.

GM Futurama  (World’s Fair exhibit | 1939–1940)
to  Brazil  (Terry Gilliam (dir.) | film | 1985)

Among the most popular attractions at the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940 was the General Motors Company’s Futurama, a grand exhibition that invited fairgoers to enter “the world of tomorrow.” From elevated seats that moved across an immense, intricately detailed diorama, visitors beheld the flawless landscape of America in 1960 as foreseen by Futurama’s designer, Norman Bel Geddes. Befitting its sponsor, the exhibit focused on automotive transport, envisioning a nationwide web of expressways that in many respects resembled the Interstate Highway System, begun in the 1950s. Unfortunately for us latter-day motorists, Bel Geddes was a tad too optimistic: On Futurama’s freeways, cars traveled in walled channels that prevented accidents, the infrastructure was everywhere in perfect repair, and there was no such thing as a traffic jam.

Futurama imagined a future so bright, manicured and safe that it’s laughable. By contrast, the world of Terry Gilliam’s futuristic film Brazil—dimly lit, unkempt, terrorized—provokes laughter of a more desperate kind. In Gilliam’s dystopia, everything is always breaking down. And the billboard-plastered walls that line the highways aren’t a safety feature; they’re there to shield motorists’ eyes from the desolate, ruined landscape that lies on the other side.

GM Futurama  (World’s Fair exhibit | 1939–1940)
to  Teleportation

The intercity travel speed forecast by GM’s Futurama—whose motor traffic moved at 50, 75 and 100 miles an hour—seems ho-hum in the age of bullet trains. The future has become a hurry-up place where fast is never fast enough. Intergalactic journeys, should they become possible, will require hyperspace travel that trounces the speed of light. Even faster—if sci-fi prognosticators can be trusted—will be teleportation, in which we dematerialize at one location and rematerialize elsewhere.

The original Star Trek series, which aired beginning in 1966, introduced TV viewers to both faster-than-light travel—“warp drive” was coined by Star Trek’s writers—and teleportation. The Starship Enterprise’s teleportation device, the transporter, was operated by chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan), and “Beam me up, Scotty” became a baby-boomer catchphrase.

In fact, teleportation has proved possible, but so far only to transfer information encoded in atoms set one meter apart. Teleporting actual bits of matter may never be technically achievable, but some folks don’t let scientific reality interfere with their thinking. A 2011 British study found that 25 percent of those surveyed believed devices capable of teleporting human beings already existed. Beam them up, Scotty. Please.

The Jetsons  (TV series | 1962–1963 (original episodes))
to  Brazil  (Terry Gilliam (dir.) | film | 1985)

We may all yearn for our own personal teleporters, but among the least palatable of prophesied inventions that never quite came to be is food dispensed in pill form. The writers of The Jetsons, the animated ABC series that projected a stereotypical American nuclear family 100 years into the future, seem to have been of two minds when envisioning dining circa 2062: Some of the Jetsons’ food looks like old-fashioned chow, though it emerges from a slot in a push-button “kitchen.” Sometimes, however, the Jetsons sit down to suppers consisting of identical rectangular tablets, cuisine as bland as the show’s lame humor.

Much funnier—and grimmer—is the futuristic grub imagined by writer-director Terry Gilliam in his dystopian fantasy Brazil. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the sad-sack hero (played by Jonathan Pryce) has lunch in a swank restaurant with his gorgon of a mother (Katherine Helmond, in a brilliantly nutty performance). As depicted in the menus’ photos, the fare looks delectable, but the dishes delivered to the table are all lumps of pastel-colored gunk. The diners don’t seem to mind, however, nor are they particularly perturbed when terrorists firebomb the restaurant mid-meal.

Artificial Intelligence
to  GM Futurama  (World’s Fair exhibit | 1939–1940)

Do androids dream of electric sheep? So asked Philip K. Dick in the novella that inspired Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982). We don’t yet know the answer, because there aren’t any around to ask—and no, Google’s Android doesn’t count. Shouldn’t the field of artificial intelligence have made more progress by now? Sure, we know about Deep Blue, the computer that beat chess master Garry Kasparov in 1997, and Watson, the electronic “brain” that triumphed on Jeopardy! in 2011. But they are idiot savants compared to the devilishly clever HAL 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And the robot developed at the University of California, Berkeley, that (slowly) folds towels is a far cry from the Jetsons’ sarcastic robo-maid, Rosie, and the multiplicity of household chores she efficiently performs.

We’ve been expecting real-life robots and androids ever since replicants somersaulted through Blade Runner and the pallid Data (Brent Spiner) made his first calculation on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). Blade Runner is set in 2019, and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001)—in which Haley Joel Osment plays a heart-tugging boy-android—presents a society hardly advanced beyond our own. So get on with it already, science!

The Jetsons  (TV series | 1962–1963 (original episodes))
to  Teleportation

Elevators in The Jetsons are essentially pneumatic tubes: Step under the mouth of one and you’re sucked up to the desired floor. (The tubes work in the downward direction, too.) Pneumatics may have appeared futuristic to Jetsons viewers, but the basic technology—objects driven through cylinders by means of a vacuum or compressed air—had been around for well over a century by the time the show was first broadcast. And pneumatic cylinders had long been staple hardware with which sci-fi and fantasy writers outfitted their imaginary worlds: In Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1863, transatlantic crossings are made via pneumatic tunnels; in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), written messages are conveyed throughout the Ministry of Truth’s pneumatic complex.

Teleportation is an entirely different mode of transport. Curiously, however, there’s a strong visual echo of pneumatic tube technology in the Star Trek transporter: The machine itself is a large semicylinder, and the flickering beams that dissolve and reconstitute Enterprise crew members emerge from cylindrical fixtures overhead. There’s no reason, of course, that teleportation devices have to look this way; the steel-ribbed teleportation pods in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) look like man-size hand grenades.

The Jetsons  (TV series | 1962–1963 (original episodes))
to  Flying Cars

Jetsons-brand futurism is awfully retro. Skypad Apartments, where the Jetsons live, looks remarkably like L.A.’s iconic Capitol Records Tower (completed in 1956), and their furnishings are exaggerated mid-century modern (think Eero Saarinen on steroids). Paterfamilias George Jetson may wear space-age garb, but his psychology is that of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Jane, his wife, is fond of shopping (she uses cash) and of henpecking George. The mister and missus vacation at a resort called Las Venus, where the casinos have names like Sonic Sahara and Flamoongo. Mad Men’s Don Draper would be at his leisure in the Jetsons’ world, where smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis are major means of recreation.

For all its throwbacks, though, The Jetsons did showcase some truly forward-looking technology. Characters converse via TV-size videophones (with transmissions clearer than Skype’s). Chores are performed by robots (which doesn’t stop Jane from complaining about having to “do the housekeeping”). Most desirably, the Jetsons flit about their high-rise city in their very own flying car—a red saucer-shaped vehicle with a bubble top and tailfins. Of course, everybody else in 2062 also has a flying car, so the skyway is perpetually clogged with traffic. Plus ça change.

Flying Cars
to  Time Machines

Flying cars have existed since 1937, when inventor Waldo Waterman’s Arrowbile made its maiden flight. Futurama designer Norman Bel Geddes toyed with a flying-car prototype in the 1940s, and today more than a dozen models are in commercial development, though it remains unclear how private “roadable aircraft” could be effectively regulated. One thing, however, is certain. None of these cars, should they ever take to the skies, will be as nifty as the most famous fictional flying car of the past half-century: Doc Brown’s nuclear-powered DeLorean of the Back to the Future trilogy (1985–1990). As Doc says at the end of the first film, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Doc’s DMC-12, of course, could fly through time as well as air, ferrying the mad scientist and his teenage protégé, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), back and forth between the present (1985) and the years 1955, 2015 and 1885. Back to the Future, Part II envisions an era in which flying cars are commonplace; when Doc, Marty and Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, arrive in 2015, they find themselves jockeying for space on a crowded skyway—and nearly collide with a flying taxi.

Time Machines
to  Teleportation

Time machines carry you instantly to another era while you remain in the same geographic locale; teleporters move you elsewhere in space in the merest blink of an eye. Very cool.

Unfortunately, theoretical and practical challenges impede the development of these two technologies and may render them unrealizable. Time travel theorists talk about the “grandfather paradox”: If I travel back in time and kill my grandfather before he meets my grandmother—making one of my parents’ (and hence, my own) conception impossible—how could I have time-traveled in the first place? Teleportation is likewise dogged by conundrums. Quantum physics seems to dictate that a teleported person would be destroyed in the process, making the person who rematerializes a copy of his or her original self.

Science-fiction tales of time travel and teleportation tend to focus on potential technical glitches. The Time Traveller in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) gets stuck in the distant future. Star Trek’s transporter occasionally malfunctions. And the best-laid plans of the scientist protagonist in The Fly (original 1958, remake 1986) go horrifically awry when his atoms get mixed up with those of a housefly that alights inside the teleporter. Give that man a time machine.