Science & Technology

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.