If we’re being honest with ourselves, 16 years into the 21st century, it is easy to be a little bit disappointed.
Sure the worst as predicted by Ray Bradbury, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley didn’t quite happen — books aren’t routinely burned, Big Brother is not watching (mostly) and super addictive narcotics are not handed out on demand to keep the populations immoral and tranquilized — but the darkest dystopias weren’t the only future being forecasted in the 20th century when it looked into the not-too-distant future.
For every writer who was pretty sure that humanity was always one bad morning away from blowing ourselves back into the Stone Age, there have always been contrasting voices to point out that humanity thus far mostly used its intellectual abilities and tendency toward inventing better technology to avoid being wiped wholesale off the face of the Earth.
Those stories those people told were about the better future mankind built with their tools — and on a quick glance, when we stack our real future up against the optimistic world projected into the our century in the last half century, it’s easy to get a little down on humanity’s actual progress so far.
George Jetson, patriarch of the Jet Age Jetson family that first hit the airwaves in 1962, was a blue collar worker that supported a family of four on a blue collar worker’s salary and his work week was nine hours long. He had a flying car, a sassy robot maid and regular access to a teleporter. Now, granted, the Jetsons did take place in the 2060s, so there’s still time — but given the progress of today’s technology, the flying car seems unlikely.
"Star Trek" the original series, also launched in the 1960s, forecast that by the early 21st century (2063) humanity would have invented faster-than-light-travel and moved past the limitation of scarcity with the invention of the food replicator. Again, all the stuff about Starfleet and boldly going where no man has gone before doesn’t take place until the 23rd century in the "Star Trek" canon, but still, we as a society are still pretty clearly running behind Gene Roddenberry’s schedule.
So did the future fail us?
Well by the standards of flying cars and warp drives, yes.
But perhaps those were always rather optimistic projections.
A closer look at the world we live in today indicates two interesting things:
- We do in fact live in the future.
- It’s a future we’ve been predicting surprisingly well for a while.
Don’t believe us?
Well then please, let’s jump in the wayback machine and check in with "The Jetsons" in 1962 ...
OK, so we don’t have flying cars, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing when you consider that the Jetsons lived entirely in the sky. By all accounts the family of the future had absolutely no interaction with the terrestrial surface of the Earth. Though it is never formally explained on the show, we are going to take that as a bad sign and note that while we may lack flying cars in our future, we also have as of yet not made the surface of the planet inhospitable to human life.
So there’s that.
There is also the reality that a closer viewing of "The Jetsons" shows that actually we have more technology in common with the futuristic family than their viewers in the 1960s did.
Take Rosy, the sassy robot maid. Our AI and robotics are not quite that good yet, but we do live at a point in history that purchasing a robot to clean one’s home is entirely possible (the roomba) and medical tech is currently working on companion robots as the home health aides of the future (Jibo).
Not sassy enough for you?
Good news: Try Amazon Alexa, an AI with personality.
She may not call you Mr. J, but if you ask her to be your girlfriend, she’ll friendzone you and she even tells jokes. They may be jokes of middling quality, but Rosy wasn’t exactly Shecky Greene either.
But wait, there’s more — like video chatting on a flat screen.
Gotten quite good at Facetime and Google Hangouts? Then you have something in common with George Jetson and his entire family, as the telephone was a thing of the past in the Jetson's future — apparently phased out in favor of flat screen video chats. George Jetson also had a smartwatch that looked surprisingly similar to the Apple Watches we wear today.
(The smartwatch has, in fact, been a common prediction for some time. James Bond has been rocking one since the '60s, as has Dick Tracey, who, like the modern user, was able to make phone calls from his wrist.)
Though in fairness, George Jetson’s smartwatch (despite the resemblance it bears to the Apple Watch) is still more functional than what we wear today, as his smartwatch does video chat.
And the Jetsons aren’t the only cartoon that did a shockingly good job representing the future …
Hopping 20 years ahead in the wayback machine, we get to 1983, the year "Inspector Gadget" hit the airwaves.
For those unfamiliar with the show, "Inspector Gadget" was a cartoon crossing of Inspector Clouseau from "The Pink Panther" series and "The Six Million Dollar Man." A basically well meaning (if somewhat dangerously clueless) investigator, Inspector Gadget was persistently saved by two things:
- His ability to utter the phrase “Go, go gadget X” and summon up whatever piece of weirdo tech he needed to survive the situation.
- His incredibly smart and technologically adept niece, Penny, who always hid in the background and did all the actual detective work.
And while it is easy to give Penny all the credit, it seems worth noting that the character was a time-traveling super genius who had access to futuristic technology that was more advanced (and practical) than her uncle’s various gadgets.
No, we aren’t kidding.
Penny carried a book that was secretly a laptop computer, an innovation that didn't hit the market for another four years. But more than a laptop, Penny’s computer hooked up to a wireless network that could be used to search out any information she needed to solve a case. So her computer had both Wi-Fi and access to the Internet, despite the fact that neither had been invented yet.
Also, watching a clip of how Penny searched on her laptop — by entering a few key search terms (as opposed to writing whole sentences) — would imply she is using Google 20 or so years early — and the pages of data she pulls up look an awful lot like Wikipedia.
Also, it seems worth noting that despite the fact that her uncle is openly a high-tech cyborg prototype, Penny works hard throughout the series to disguise all of her access to technology.
Probably because it is from the future.
And prestidigitation was not over in the early '80s. In fact, the most accurate future-predicting show in history really only got up and running in the 1990s.
The Internet has a love affair with "The Simpsons" and the many conspiracy theories that series has spawned.
However, a particular episode in 1995 that flashed 15 years into the future to 2010 to Lisa Simpson’s wedding does seem to deserve a special mention.
Like the Jetsons before them, the Simpsons family forecast a very Apple Watch-esque wearable, but the Simpsons incarnation had a character ask and receive a spoken answer from the watch. We think this means the Simpsons deserves credit for accurately predicting Siri.
That same episode also features an electric car that looks awfully similar to the Prius, a VR-based video gaming system that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Oculus Rift and an eReader that looks an awful lot like the Kindle.
The show also featured paying at a vending machine with a credit card, something that didn’t exist at all in 1995 — though something that is at risk of looking a little dated with the emerging mobile payments.
Actually, speaking of payments, quick flashback to the 1960s and …
OK, so we have smartwatches, video chat, electric cars and a whole pile of stuff that the past couldn’t have even begun to predict. Netflix is something only recently even imaginable apparently.
But it sure isn’t "Star Trek" right?
What is interesting is how little money and payments on all shows has changed. George Jetson's wife, Jane, grabs all of his cash in the opening credit of the song, credit cards are not a big part of the Jetson's future, let alone mobile. And when you watch the cartoons of the time — no matter how much the tech has changed, the money and payment system has not.
Except in "Star Trek," where it is mentioned in passing that money in the 21st century currency as we know it is almost totally defunct unless it is being used in trade with other (primitive) races.
The money of the future is the Federation Credit, a fully electronic form of currency that can only be interacted with entirely electronically on computer screens and on mobile devices.
Did that inspire Satoshi?
So we don’t have the warp core yet, or the transporters, or even replicators.
But we have "Star Trek’s" financial system building out right in front of us, on top of futuristic tech that looked science fictiony even 20 years ago to writers of "The Simpsons."
Maybe the future is closer than we think.
(Note to self: Watch more cartoons for predictions on the future 50 years from now.)