Twenty-five years ago, Los Angeles magazine envisioned what the world would look like in the current decade. And unlike Blade Runner, they avoided the cool but standard science fiction allegories – like massive billboards, flying cars and sentient robots – and went straight for the things that seemed entirely possible by contemporary standards.
The cover story of the magazine’s April 3, 1988 edition showed a futuristic downtown L.A. crisscrossed with electrically charged, multi-tiered freeways permeated by self-driving cars. The article itself then imagined a day in the life of the fictional Morrow family of the L.A. suburb Granada Hills, as “profiled” by the magazine in 2013 by science fiction writer Nicole Yorkin.
Ironically, the magazine did not envision that it would one day go out of business, or that print media would one day be lurching towards extinction. Nevertheless, the fictional article and the world it detailed were interesting reading. Little wonder then why, earlier this month, the LA Times along with an engineering class at USC, revisited the archives to assess what it predicted correctly versus incorrectly.
Together, professor Jerry Lockenour and his class made a list of the hits and misses, and what they found paints a very interesting picture of how we predict the future and how its realization so often differs from what we expect. Of the major predictions to be found in LA of the 2013, as well as in the lives of the Morrow family (get it?), here is what they got right:
In the article, the Morrows are said to begin every morning when their “Smart House” automatically turns on. This consists of all the appliances activating and preparing them breakfast, and no doubt turning on all the environmental controls and opening the shades to get the temperature and ambient lighting just right.
While this isn’t the norm for the American family yet, the past few years have proved a turning point for home devices hooking up with the Internet, to become more programmable and serve our daily needs. And plans are well under way to find a means of networking them all together so they function as one “smart” unit.
The writers of the article predicted that by 2013, cars would come standard with computers that control most of the settings, along with GPS systems for navigation. They also predict self-driving cars, which Google and Chevy are busy working on. In addition to using clean, alternative energy sources, these cars are expected to be able t0 self-drive, much in the same way a pilot puts their plane on auto-pilot. Drivers will also be able to summon the cars to their location, connect wirelessly to the internet, and download apps and updates to keep their software current.
But of course, they got a few things wrong as well. Here they are, the blots on their predictive record:
The article also predicts that each morning the Morrows would begin their day with a freshly printed newspaper, as rendered by their laser-jet printer. These would be tailor-made, automatically selecting the latest news feeds that would be of most interest to them. What this failed to anticipate was the rise in e-media and the decline of printed media, though hardly anyone would fault them for this. While news has certainly gotten more personal, the use of tablets, ereaders and smartphones is the way the majority of people now read their selected news.
Robot servants and pets:
In what must have seemed like a realistic prediction, but which now comes across as a sci-fi cliche, the Morrows’ home was also supposed to come equipped with a robotic servant that had a southern accent. The family’s son was also greeted every morning by a robot dog that would come to play with him. While we are certainly not there yet, the concept of anthropomorphic robot assistants is becoming more real every day. Consider, for example, the Kenshiro robot (pictured at right), the 3D printed android, or the proposed Roboy, the Swiss-made robotic child. With all of these in the works, a robotic servant or pet doesn’t seem so far-fetched does it?
Between these four major predictions and which came to be true, we can see that the future is not such an easy thing to predict. In addition to always being in motion, and subject to acceleration, slowing and sudden changes, the size and shape of it can be very difficult to pin down. No one can say for sure what will be realized and when, or if any of the things we currently take for granted will even be here tomorrow.
For instance, during the 1960’s and 70’s, it was common practice for futurists and scientists to anticipate that the space race, which had culminated with humans setting foot on the moon in 1969, would continue into the future, and that humanity would be seeing manned outposts on the moon by and commercial space flight by 1999. No one at the time could foresee that a more restrictive budget environment, plus numerous disasters and a thawing of the Cold War, would slow things down in that respect.
In addition, most predictions that took place before the 1980’s completely failed to predict the massive revolution caused by miniaturization and the explosion in digital technology. Many futurist outlooks at the time predicted the rise in AI, but took it for granted that computers would still be the size of a desk and require entire rooms dedicated to their processors. The idea of a computer that could fit on top of a desk, let alone on your lap or in the palm of your hand, must have seemed farfetched.
What’s more, few could predict the rise of the internet before the late 1980’s, or what the realization of “cyberspace” would even look like. Whereas writer’s like William Gibson not only predicted but coined the term, he and others seemed to think that interfacing with it would be a matter of cool neon-graphics and avatars, not the clean, page and site sort of interface which it came to be.
And even he failed to predict the rise of such things as email, online shopping, social media and the million other ways the internet is tailored to suit the average person and their daily needs. When it comes right down to it, it is not a dangerous domain permeated by freelance hacker “jockeys” and mega-corporations with their hostile counter-intrusion viruses (aka. Black ICE). Nor is it the social utopia promoting open dialogue and learning that men like Bill Gates and Al Gore predicted it would be in the 1990’s. If anything, it is an libertarian economic and social forum that is more democratic and anarchistic than anyone could have ever predicted.
But of course, that’s just one of many predictions that came about that altered how we see things to come. As a whole, the entire thing has come to be known for being full of shocks and surprises, as well as some familiar faces. In short, the future is an open sea, and there’s no telling which way the winds will blow, or what ships will make it to port ahead of others. All we can do is wait and see, and hopefully trust in our abilities to make good decisions along the way. And of course, the occasional retrospective and issue congratulations for the things we managed to get right doesn’t hurt either!