From Sky Flivver to Hydropolis

What happened to the science-fiction future?

If this is the future, someone forgot to stock it properly. Where are the personal service robots, the moon vacations, the self-contained cities rising out of the smog? What happened to all those sci-fi prophecies? In Where’s My Jetpack? (Bloomsbury), Popular Mechanics columnist Daniel Wilson moans that “it’s the twenty-first century, and things are a little disappointing.” Wilson, the author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, begs “all the scientists, inventors, and tinkerers out there” to “please hurry up” (emphasis in original).

Wilson shouldn’t be so moony. Fanciful futurist visions can obscure all the neat stuff we’ve accumulated, once-wild innovations that are far cooler and more functional than jetpacks. (Microwave ovens, anyone?) They also make it easy to forget that the ultimate responsibility for choosing which technologies fill our lives lies with us, the ordinary consumers, more than any rocket scientists. Take the titular jetpack. It exists—but no one really wants it. It’s a 125-pound monster with a flight time of 30 seconds, powered by expensive fuel. The dream of individual human flight was realized in 1961, and we haven’t been able to find any use for it outside of Bond movies, the first Super Bowl halftime show, and Ovaltine commercials.

We may not have the moving sidewalks of ever-increasing speed described by Robert Heinlein in his 1940 story “The Roads Must Roll.” But we do have escalators. With Heinlein’s dream of a begoggled pedestrian commuting at 100 miles an hour dancing in your head, pokey old escalators may not seem like much of a consolation. But in 1898, when Harrods department store in London unveiled its newly installed automated stairs, employees had brandy and smelling salts on hand to treat shoppers suffering from the shock of the new.

If you’re not sold on the glories of escalators, consider the progress we’ve made toward one fanciful vision presented at the 1964 New York World’s Fair: underwater dwellings. As I write, there are about 100 luxury submarines plying the seas. Average folks with a yen to join the Five Fathom Club can save themselves the cost of maintaining a private sub by booking a couple of nights off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, at the former underwater lab now known as Jules’ Undersea Lodge. From there, you can scuba dive to your heart’s content and amuse yourself in the evenings however you see fit. If nosy cetaceans are a problem—and apparently they will be, as there’s been a rash of Peeping Tom dolphin incidents—just close the curtains.

If your tastes run shallower and more luxurious, wait until 2008 and book one of the 220 suites at Hydropolis, a “submarine leisure complex” in the Persian Gulf. The property on which Hydropolis is being built belongs to His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai, just the sort of person you need when you’re making a science-fiction future a reality. Initially planned as a deep-sea project, Hydropolis has become a shallow-water structure with views of underwater vistas and of light shows in the sky. It contains everything from a movie theater to a cosmetic surgery clinic. The dream of deep-sea luxury living isn’t perfectly realized here, even with a crown prince bankrolling. But Hydropolis promises most of the amenities of deep-sea life without much of the bother.

For boomers and their offspring raised on The Jetsons, the sky-scraping city-in-the-clouds is the sine qua non of the future. In early America, Wilson notes, steeples of churches were the tallest structures around—closer my God to thee, and all that. By the 1850s, state capitols took over as the most imposing buildings. By the 1900s, the skyscraper took the skyline for capitalism, trumping both church and state.

Today such towers have spread far beyond America and further toward the heavens. Dubai, for instance, is looking up to the clouds as well as down to the sea floor. Already rising to 1,680 feet, the Burj Dubai is projected to be the world’s tallest manmade structure when it’s completed next year. But for sheer hubris—and for the closest approximation to the Jetsons domicile rising out of the smog, the ground invisible from the living room windows—the prize goes to Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. He’s building a house for his family in the heart of Mumbai. The house just happens to be a 60-story glass tower. The project includes a helipad, a health club, hanging gardens, and six floors of parking.

The helipad would be especially handy if Ambani had a flying car. He doesn’t, of course, but he does have a helicopter, that less sexy but more practical realization of the flying-car dream. Small boys everywhere will always doodle Ferraris with wings when they’re bored in class, but the actual lived “future” is not something that leaps off an engineer’s drawing board or from a novelist’s visions. It emerges from complex, unpredictable interactions between visionary inspiration, technological limits, and consumers’ insistent pragmatism.

In 1928, Wilson notes, Henry Ford understood what people wanted from their personal transit: flight. His “sky flivver” actually worked, but production was stopped when some stupid pilot died in an accident. The crash put the fear of gravity into potential customers and the line was shut down. Ford went back to producing identical jalopies for the masses, and did quite well for himself.

In another recent book, The Shock of the Old (Oxford University Press), the British historian David Edgerton posits that technological innovations don’t matter as much as we think they do. We tend to consider scientific and engineering breakthroughs themselves as the important thing, he says, when what really matters is how we fit them into our lives. Edgerton disparages our high hopes for each new innovation as “futurism,” a disease that led us to believe in a new world birthed by engineers, where electricity would be “too cheap to meter,” Segways would be ubiquitous, and voice recognition software would replace keyboards. Moving sidewalks exist, after all. Even now they creep through many of our airports. Heinlein’s future isn’t upon us for the same reason we don’t all have jetpacks: We haven’t wanted to make the technology our own.

If Wilson is disappointed with the future, it’s because he approaches it the wrong way. He—and we—shouldn’t read science fiction to get a sneak peak at as-yet-unseen innovative technologies. Rather than as a blueprint for what should happen, we should read it to imagine the ways humanity will figure out how to use whatever shows up, or to tweak the impressive tech that’s already lying around.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of Reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Lord Jubjub||

    Between flying cars and 100-mph streets, what do you think the average lifespan of a human would be?

  • ed||

    Longer than now.

  • ||

    What about that car that runs on water?

    I used to hear a lot about that, not so much anymore

  • ||

    Where's my flying car?

    Oh, here it is.

  • ||

    Haven't you heard?

    Underwater Cities + Randian Objectivism = Bad Idea.

  • ed||

    What about that car that runs on water?

    We have those. They're called "boats".

  • ||

    What about that car that runs on water?

    I used to hear a lot about that, not so much anymore

    They were built, and marketed. The failed the profitabilty test. I'm too lazy to look up the details right now, but a club for these amphibious vehicle owners does exist.

  • SIV||

    Amphibious cars?

    Well if you were a libertarian you would know all about them.

  • ||

    The Germans developed the Amphicar, based on a WWII military vehicle.

    Kevin

  • ||

    What a crappy post! The spelling and non-use of italics to indicate a quote are completely unacceptable! You Suck!

  • ||

    I think by "car that runs on water" he meant the car that splits water for energy and puts out oxygen as waste or something. A water-car instead of an internal-combustion car.

    So, I guess the real question is, where is my old-timey steampunk airship?

  • ||

    Seriously, predicting the future is an exercise fraught with peril. The most prescient was Arthur C. Clarke's prediction of the geosynchronous communications satellite.

  • ||

    Obviously, flying cars and 100-MPH city streets await an adequate AI that can drive our vehicles safely. I say we riot until all of the required technologies are made available.

  • robc||

    The most prescient was Arthur C. Clarke's prediction of the geosynchronous communications satellite.

    Bah. Heinlein predicted waterbeds.
    Niven/Pournelle predicted PDAs.

  • robc||

    PL,

    If we are going to riot, I want to hold out for Puppeteer Stepping Disks.

    You know the pentagon has the technology and just hasnt released it.

  • ||

    J sub D

    In the first chapter of the Foundation series, Hari Selden meets a young student and shows him calculations on his hand-held calculator. On close reading, this device appears to be on the level of 1990s technology. Asimov placed the Foundation series 10,000 years in the future.

    Sometimes, the future arrives faster than we think!

  • ed||

    predicting the future is an exercise fraught with peril.

    Yep. That's why the worst sci-fi (especially cinematic endeavors) is that which relies most on technological instead of ideological themes. Especially now, special-effects-laden sci-fi cinema has a shelf life of about 3 years, after which it looks positively stupid (with a few fine exceptions).

  • ||

    Heinlein predicted waterbeds.
    Niven/Pournelle predicted PDAs.

    In the first chapter of the Foundation series, Hari Selden meets a young student and shows him calculations on his hand-held calculator.


    IMHO, these don't evem compare with the impact of satellite TV.

  • rho||

    They predicted a home computer that would fit in a single room in the 1960s. Now I can calculate pi to the billionth digit with my wristwatch. If you want to live in the future move to Australia.

  • ||

    ed,

    I agree. The best sci fi is not about futuristic sciences, it's about humanity's responses/adaptations to futuristic sciences. In the latter case, the actual science can be easily substituted.

  • Paul||

    employees had brandy and smelling salts on hand to treat shoppers suffering from the shock of the new.

    In some ways, I so want those days back...

  • ||

    If you want to live in the future move to Australia.

    You mean we're all going to become convicted criminals and be deported to someplace far away?

  • The Shat||

    KKKAAAAAAAHHHHHHHNNNNNNN!!!!!!!

  • Khan Noonien Singh||

    Ahem. It's "Khan", Shatner, my old friend.

  • ed||

    the actual science can be easily substituted.

    Right. Look at some of the classic Twilight Zone episodes. It's not about the gadgets.

  • ||

    I thought this was a perceptive article. Katherine makes the point that jetpacks, flying and floating cars, and moving sidewalks already exist, but nobody really has much use for them after all. As to the moving sidewalks, are we Americans already a bunch of fatasses? The last thing we need is *assisted walking*...

    I do believe that "personal flight options" will become more common in the 21st Century, though the result will probably be very different than the flying bubble cars in The Jetsons. Companies are already working on air taxis, in order to bypass major airports and make better use of our drastically underused small airports and airfields.

  • edna||

    Heinlein predicted waterbeds

    and more importantly, autocad. remember "drafting dan"?

  • Ska||

    Bergamot -

    Bioshock came to mind immediately when the article discusses underwater dwellings...

  • ||

    I say we riot until all of the required technologies are made available.

    Mais oui! C'est idee formidable!

  • ||

    Right. Look at some of the classic Twilight Zone episodes. It's not about the gadgets.

    The best speculative fiction on television, ever.

  • ||

    and more importantly, autocad. remember "drafting dan"?

    Good call, edna. The Door Into Summer, right?

  • ||

    The future is only amazing to those who don't live in it.

  • Chosen One||

    Master Pain! I thought you changed your name to Betty...

  • ||

    I would settle for a blow-up doll that doesn't call me another man's name.

  • ||

    I think by "car that runs on water" he meant the car that splits water for energy and puts out oxygen as waste or something. A water-car instead of an internal-combustion car.


    Well, that'd only require minor changes in the laws of physics.

  • ||

    Ahem. It's "Khan", Shatner, my old friend.

    Repeat after me: "Rich Corinthian leather."

  • ||

    Well, that'd only require minor changes in the laws of physics.

    I can't see why the current administration would have a problem with that.

  • ||

    Well, that'd only require minor changes in the laws of physics.

    Not really. Think controlled hydrogen fusion. But that may not be just around the corner.

  • Khan Noonien Singh||

  • ||

    Controlled fusion really is right around the corner. No, really.

  • ||

    Controlled fusion really is right around the corner. No, really.

    Controlled fusion is only 10 years away. It's been that way for the last 50 years.

  • ||

    Controlled fusion really is right around the corner. No, really.
    Controlled fusion is only 10 years away. It's been that way for the last 50 years.


    I know how you guys feel. I've been expecting the eggheads to crack this nut since ~1967. Fuck a bunch of flying cars and cities in the clouds, give me cheap, clean, almost limitless energy any old time. Remember that cold fusion debacle? Didn't we really wnt it to be true? Weren't we really pissed of that these incompetent boobs got our hopes up, only to be dashed on the rocks? It's one of the many factors contributing to my skepticism.

  • ||

    SIV --

    Please don't link to Amanda Marcotte's Pandagon again.

    It made me exceed my daily recommended allowance of Vitamin Dumb.

  • ||

    There's always the Electron Pump.

  • ||

    I've been expecting the eggheads to crack this nut since ~1967

    J sub D

    I have a suspicion that the problem has really been that they have allowed the programs to be run by theoreticians, rather than engineers.

    Theoreticians want nice, elegantly designed experiments to see what comes out. Engineers keep trying, look at what they got, then try again.

    Plus, almost all of the fusion programs have been government run, which means that everything has to go through 200 committees before they move on to the next stage.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Flying Cars: I don't understand why more people don't get pilot licenses. It is not too expensive and does not take too much time. It would be much more convenient than relying on airlines all the time. Just rent an aircraft when you need it or get partial ownership of one and that is good enough.

    Instead I keep hearing about groups of "concerned citizens" rallying to close small general aviation airports, often private ones. For the children.

  • Mark Plus||

    I wonder what happened to the space colonies, polyamorous sex, material abundance and radical life extension predicted to arrive by right about now.

    For example, refer to F.M. Esfandiary's predictions for that far off, mysterious year 2010 published back in 1981:

    "Up-Wing Priorities" (PDF)
    http://www.box.net/shared/static/ay9lub60ha.pdf

  • ||

    "If you want to live in the future move to Australia."

    "You mean we're all going to become convicted criminals and be deported to someplace far away?"

    Could be, cobber. You break rule, Authority deports you to Luna. And is getting harder and harder to avoid breaking rules.

    Do this. Don't do that. Stay back in line. Where's tax receipt? Fill out form. Let's see license. Submit six copies. Exit only. No left turn. No right turn. Queue up and pay fine. Take back and get stamped. Drop dead -- but first get permit.

  • Mike Laursen||

    The future is only amazing to those who don't live in it.

    Disagree with you on that. We're living in the past's future right now and there's some really amazing stuff here. Like this astounding system of Internet tubes through which we are communicating.

  • Guy Montag||

    ChicagoTom,

    What about that car that runs on water?

    I used to hear a lot about that, not so much anymore


    I was surprised that the 'water powered engine' nonsense did not pop up during the latest, natural, price appreciation in the energy markets.

    For some reason, organic hydrogen does not seem to get the same play. Maybe because it is so much more practical. I have been using it for decades and there is certainly no shortage of the stuff, other than the artificial ones that crop up.

  • ||

    We have lost confidence in our ability to project into the future more than a century or two, because things are changing so rapidly. If things continue to change at their current pace, perhaps we will have immortalized ourselves into pure information in 500 years. Who knows. So "hard" science fiction seems incredibly dated in just ten or twenty years -- just think how unconvincing the world of "Sandworms of Dune" seems now comepared to how fresh the world of "Dune" seemed when that book came out. All this reminds me of Damon Knight's comment on A.E. van Vogt: "After 10 thousand years of chaos, the hero drives down the street in a Studebaker."

  • ||

    Some of the drug raids Radley Balko has been reporting on are reminicient of both "1984" and "A Clockword Orange".

    Recently, a lady in a wheel chair was tasered to death by cops; she was waving a hammer and a knife. Why didn't they just grab her wrists and squeeze?

    A friend and I were just talking also about how Zimbabwe reminded us of the way things fell apart in "Atlas Shrugged". The capable people finally just quit and leave.

  • Mark Bahner||

    "Controlled fusion is only 10 years away. It's been that way for the last 50 years."

    The federal government's fusion research has killed fusion. It has turned fusion into a lifetime research prospect.

    Look at the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER). I think the *earliest* date expected for completing construction is 2016. And then there will be 20 *years* of subsequent testing. Talk about boondoggles!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITER

  • ||

    Flying Cars: It is not too expensive and does not take too much time. It would be much more convenient than relying on airlines all the time.

    Airliners fly 3-4x faster than most single-engine private planes. Other than that, the main problem with making small planes routine, convenient transportation is weather. When you really need to get home, but there is a line of thunderstorms or icing conditions in the way -- it's just not fun. And there's not much high-tech, sci-fi solutions can do about thunderstorms and ice. Not until small, cheap, private airplanes fly at 35,000 feet, anyway.

  • Speaker to Animals||

    The energy cost of operating a flying car will likely keep them MIA for quite a while.

    The book mentioned "The Shock of the Old" (Oxford University Press), by British historian David Edgerton, I don't think this fellow gives enough credence to what has been created. (Its like when you live in the mountains all the type, you get numbed to the spectacular views.)

    Things I could not have imagined I would have here in 2007 back in 1975 (granted, this is in the United States):

    * 2 computers in my house. With fast graphic displays.

    * I would have to worry about viruses in my computers.

    * A son that when he was 4 expected shows on broadcast TV to always have a rewind button. Then 10 years later -- they do (TiVO).

    * Mountain Bikes that have hydraulic disk breaks and 27 speeds (3 x 9 gears) and shock absorbers. Giving the rider to go just about anywhere under human power.

    * A complete blue print of the Human Genome downloaded on to computers.

    * More different types of food in the grocery stores than can be eaten/tasted in a year. So much vast quantities of it managing obesity becomes a major problem.

    * A human with prosthetic that can race nearly as fast as a standard human.

    * The internet with access to more information resources than any library that existed in the world in 1970 (e.g., this summer I examined a satellite picture of the campsite we were going to be camping at for our summer vacation).

    * Kids with cystic fibrosis routinely living past 20+ years old.

    * My mother being 85 years old and swimming 5 days a week at an indoor pool facility.

    * Microwave ovens that cook food in seconds to minutes. (Something that takes 5 minutes to warm seems like forever.)

    * 24 hour news channels. Plus news on the internet.

    * DVD movies that are so easy to pickup and use they begin to make the theater going experience
    a bit old fashioned.

    * Camping equipment that in 1975 would have seemed fit for an expedition on an alien planet.

    * Small music players that are the size of a matchbox that can hold thousands and thousands of songs. (Remember those old 8 tracks?)

    * Visual detection of planets around other star systems.

    * Drugs of numerous types for many illnesses that were considered incurable.

    * Cancer patients routinely surviving.

    * A globally integrated economy that supplies goods and services with the "invisibility" similar to turning on a light switch -- its there so reliably and so often you begin to take it for granted.

    All this an much more...

  • nfl jerseys||

    xhgh

  • Mendel||

    We do need to remember that we have already come a very long way since the 50's but just in ways not as noticeable as robot maids or time-traveling waterbeds. We have a world more connected that ever before, with things getting better all the time in terms of quality of life. I think that's really the future we want to live in.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement