BOOK REVIEW: "The Wonderful Future that Never Was" by Gregory Benford et al. (2010)

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

Do you ever dream of an optimistic, good old-fashioned future of endless technological progress? The sort of techno-gee-whiz optimism that science fiction used to be known for? The Hugo Gernsback let’s-solve-all-our-problems with-a-gadget-philosophy? Then you should pick up The Wonderful Future That Never Was, a fascinating, well-illustrated, and beautiful book reprinting the future predictions made by Popular Mechanics from 1903 to 1969. The illustrations are high quality reproductions from the magazine, and are worth the price alone. Gregory Benford writes commentary on the magazine’s predictions and helps judge the accuracy and the context of the magazine’s futurism. An excellent example of retro-futurism, as entertaining as a book of art by Frank R. Paul, The Wonderful Future That Never Was displays the sense of wonder with progress and technological advancement that exemplified Golden Age SF. The editors and writers of PM had immense faith in the ability of science, reason, and technology to solve problems.

It's difficult to predict the future. As Benford points out, it was easy to recognize that more cars would result in greater freedom of movement, and cities with broader roads and highways, but predicting the social consequences of cars, such as suburbs, rock and roll, sex in the back seat, and drive-in movies, is more complex. Technology has more than one consequence, and one of the most complicated is predicting how humans will respond to technological change.

There are many different lessons that readers will draw from this book. One lesson is that these naïve, campy people in the past imagined all these wonders that didn't come true. Another lesson is that we should be more pessimistic and cynical in our attempts to imagine the future. Those would actually be the wrong conclusions. Gregory Benford comments on the predictions:

"I found the percentage of good predictions in these magazines surprisingly high: better than 50 percent. Failures usually assumed that bigger would always be better -- vast domed cities, floating airports, personal helicopters, tunnels across continents. Ideas also fail because adding functions compromises performance (the aircars that were actually built in the 1950s were inferior cars and lousy planes)" (15).

As Benford pointed out, "Optimism paid off, though" (15). Free markets allowed human ingenuity to overcome problems of dwindling resources as dynamic economies developed better methods of extracting resources and using them more efficiently. Optimism about the future propelled the modern west forward. The fact that Americans were able to use the mechanics of a free market to develop products and inventions that people wanted has allowed a century of technological and economic progress.

Some of PM’s predictions are precisely on the mark: air conditioned homes, food cooked by microwaves, GPS devices, pocket calculators, and a large frozen food industry. We find these predictions mundane simply because we live with them every day, but a Victorian would find a GPS device miraculous.

A few of PM’s speculations are hilariously wrong, bordering on camp. In 1964 PM tells us: “In 10 years, maybe less, some of you will be up here flying – as a Rocket Man.” Play Elton John as you read this section of the book. Personal jetpacks will be common for sportsmen, who will fly to inaccessible fishing spots or off-road big-game haunts. Fire fighters can rapidly rise to the upper stories of a skyscraper, and construction workers can jaunt to the higher floors of a building. Military patrols will loft themselves over mine fields (and presumably be picked off by snipers). Best of all, commuters can strap on their rocket packs and fly over annoying bumper-to-bumper traffic.

PM has an entire section on flying cars, many of them quite nifty. This book makes me mourn the gadgets I can’t have: the “flying fan” car lifting off from the back yard; the Rotavion, a vertical takeoff and landing car, that can cruise at 175 mph and is perfectly safe; the motor-sleigh, which has a propeller and runners and can reach speeds of 67 mph on a street. I’m even OK with replacing the roads and streets with a network of pneumatic tubes that will rapidly carry us in canisters from place to place in comfort and safety.

The flying cars and jet packs didn’t work out, which I mourn whenever I’m stuck in traffic, but inevitably some idiot would plummet a Rotavion into an elementary school and then presto, no more flying cars. Also, flying requires years of training; widespread use of flying vehicles is far from practical (just think about how bad the average driver is).

Another thing the magazine consistently got wrong was fashion. The artists depicted people in the future wearing bowler hats and long dresses. PM also predicted clothing made entirely of plastic, aluminum, or asbestos. I'm especially pleased that the asbestos clothing didn’t catch on.

Nonetheless, most predictions are partially right and worth thinking about. In 1931 PM forecast that people would work remotely because of the easy transportation of cars and airplanes. 1932 PM forecast that wireless telephones and TVs would allow us to communicate remotely and make it unnecessary for large numbers of people to live in a city, which comes close to imagining the growth of suburbs, and the importance of cellphones and the Internet for telecommuting. We will also be able to shop by picture-phone (kind’ve like Amazon.com).

PM’s predictions about housing are intriguing: the "houses of the future will be built of plastic and synthetic materials." Well certainly, plastic and synthetic materials are more heavily used in building, but all-plastic houses appear unlikely. The editors also referred to Buckminister Fuller, who wanted to develop prefabricated houses that would take only a few hours to build. Sadly, this has not come to pass. I've always felt housing is too expensive, but so far there have not been a lot of cheaper alternatives. Fuller designed geodesic dome houses, but this shape proved impractical because the round shape makes if difficult to install piping and electrical work and arranging the furniture in a round room is awkward. Some of the magazines predictions are odd, such as a 1928 prediction that "an inch-deep rooftop lake may become an important air-conditioning method."

Benford points out that electricity is the most important change of the 20th century, since every day appliances that we take for granted such as vacuum cleaners, washer and dryers, and dishwashers mean that we spend far less time doing chores and make it easier for women to work rather than being housewives. A number of PM’s speculations attempt to free people from the drudgery of cooking and cleaning by hand. PM imagined a dust magnet that would clean the air of dust and bacteria, allowing less frequent washing and cleaning. In 2000, our houses will become so comfortable and environmentally controlled that cleaning will not be necessary. "Dining-room tables will quietly swallow dishes after a meal and transfer them to a dishwasher which will clean the dishes, dispose of garbage, stack and store eating utensils until the next meal-time."

In 1928 PM suggested that 50 years hence, milk and butter will come from kerosene rather than cows, and most food will be served in pill form. We will add grass to food for nutrition. These predictions are partially off because of the yuck factor, the difficulty of making certain things appetizing to humans, but the prediction that home life will become easier, with less time put into cleaning and preparing food, is broadly accurate, even if the precise techniques for achieving those goals differ from PM’s speculations.

There's an entertaining section on the electric home of the future. A family has a computer installed in their basement in 1967, and I mean their whole basement is taken over by the mainframe, over 20 feet worth. This computer handles family bookkeeping, home temperature, the clocks, and remembers birthdays and anniversaries. Not really enough to justify losing your whole basement, eh? The magazine assures us that in 20, 30 years, it's unimaginable what computers will do for us. Of course, computers do end up doing the things PM predicts and more; the problem is that the editors don't imagine that computers will be miniaturized and thus vastly more useful than a basement hogging mainframe.

PM’s speculations about communication are interesting. In 1905, PM predicted pneumatic tubes delivering the mail rapidly between cities, a rather steampunkish prediction that sadly didn't come true. PM forecast a future of worldwide delivery of mail via airplanes, radio relay stations so that every home can receive radio signals (in reality we use satellites, but they’re still a type of relay stations), and radio delivery of newspapers spewing out of a facsimile machine (which sounds a lot like reading an Internet delivered newspaper that you can print). In 1923 PM predicted radio motion pictures in your home (TV). Most of which is pretty much on the mark.

PM anticipated future services similar to Google. We will have translating electronic brains (think of Google translator), and library machines that look up references and summarize them. The reference computers can contain the complete texts of millions of documents and search them for facts. The stumbling block is that humans must provide subject headings for all these documents. What PM ultimately missed was keyword search, which allows a search engine to peruse millions of documents without having hundreds of humans read the documents and assign subject headings and cataloging terms. PM overlooked – like most forecasters – that artificial intelligence does not have to be “truly” intelligent. Subject headings require human level logic and expertise; key word search is effective enough for most forms of research, but does not require expertise or true intelligence on the part of the search engine.

A couple of PM’s scenarios are disturbing. In 1932 PM anticipated a Brave New World scenario, suggesting that humans can be breed artificially and mentally trained to specialize in certain tasks. This scenario brings up a vision of a human ant colony with everyone bred and trained to fit into certain castes. The magazine makes this forecast (pre-WWII) without any suggestion that this type of eugenics is disturbing or inhumane. Another disturbing speculation is that improved technology will result in increased conformity, which PM makes without the critical sense that the loss of individuality or liberty might be a negative thing. So just as we witness the positive aspects of instrumental reason and science, we also see glimpses of its darker side.

Overall, The Wonderful Future that Never Was is a fine, well-illustrated book that’s well worth picking up.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Will conservatives like it? I think so. Its optimism about the future, and its confidence in science and free enterprise seem like views a conservative would find congenial. Its predictions -- some accurate, many partly accurate, and some hilariously wrong -- will appeal to most readers interested in science fiction.

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Robert Bee is a freelance author and a professional librarian in New Jersey. He can be reached at rightrob@repbulibot.com

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