The Future of The Past

I recently came across a magazine cover from 1962. Created by Italian artist Walter Molino, it depicts a busy road in the 21st century filled with what looks like a 4 wheeled scooter. Walter called it the “Singoletta.” 

While our roads today don’t exactly look like this, the imagination wasn’t all that far off. We certainly have booster boards and scooters that somewhat resemble the Singoletta. In fact, if anything, today's riders would probably be quite open to the possibility of having this glass enclosure that protects them from the elements.

But of course, despite its futuristic appeal and reasonable accuracy, you can still see that part of the artist's imagination is still stuck in the time in which it was drawn. For example, why would the artist imagine the transportation to so radically change, and yet leave the fashion stagnant in their time? It made me think how people in the past might have imagined their future, which just so happens to be our present.

Of course, the fascination with the future is as old as time itself. To be able to predict things with any level of accuracy was historically quite profitable. What was at one time the sole expertise of the Oracles became very much a concern for the entire population. Simply being able to predict when it might rain and when the weather would be right for crops was immensely useful to the people of the past. How accurate they were in those predictions is a different question altogether. But after all, despite all the technological advances, weather apps reliably started working only relatively recently. But, beyond the monetary incentives, we have always been wanderers of possibility. Magazine covers, movies, books - you name it. From Marty McFly’s self-lacing shoes in Back to the Future to the voice activated home security in Blade Runner, these predictions are captivating, bold, and by definition, ahead of their time. Some of them are even remarkably accurate.

This is a page from the 1928 edition of the Popular Mechanic trying to imagine a city of the future. In what seems to be a very omniscient and realistic take on cities of the present and even the future, you could argue that the authors of this magazine have predicted not just underground traffic, but also some level of larger underground infrastructure. We now know that this is going to become somewhat of a reality due to the initiatives from The Boring Company. We can also see that it's all separated by vehicle types, which is a concept we already try to use today with lanes for different speeds and vehicle types, like carpooling lanes, bus lanes, bike lanes, and so on. The picture also shows “spiral escalators.” It needs to be said that both the elevators and the escalators had been invented by then, but you would imagine the people from back then might be surprised that these things have largely remained unchanged both in form and function.

The move toward personalized technology was also one of the themes of predictions back then. The transition from the horse carriage to personal vehicles was simply the start of that. However, some even predicted things like video calling and smart homes. 

This European Postcard from the Victorian era said to depict the year 2012 seems to have predicted video-calling. And while the device to get it done looks in no way like the pocket-sized devices of today, it is remarkable that they were able to even conceive of something like this so early. 

It also needs mentioning that the timing of the prediction was also eerily accurate. Casual video calling only kicked off in the mid-2000s after Skype gained popularity, mere years before the image predicted. Of course, not everyone saw it this way. In fact, some of the very people in charge during the dawn of the technological era were quite skeptical of its personal promise. 

In what may now seem as laughably inaccurate, Thomas Watson, the president of IBM said in 1943 that “I think there is a world market for maybe... five computers.” Of course Thomas’ prediction was limited not by a lack of belief in the technology itself, but rather the sheer size of computers back then. He simply could not foresee a time when computers would be as portable and user-friendly as they are today, and who can blame him? This is not to say that everyone agreed about a computer’s promise. Ken Olsen was the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation. In 1977, he and his company were a major force in the rapidly emerging world of computing, and you would imagine that he would have first hand knowledge of how a personal computer could revolutionize the world. He famously said, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." You can tell me how correct he was there.

Of course, sometimes, these predictions are even more “out there.” In the 1950s, people thought that all furniture and appliances of the home would be water-proof and, as such, we would clean everything with a hose. In 1901, Thomas Edison also imagined a world where we would streamline the construction process so much that, instead of building things brick-by-brick, we would have pre-designed models of houses, and upon the customer's choice, you would simply go ahead and “pour” them in place. 

It sounds like an extreme large-scale water-based version of 3D printing, one which, needless to say, is a ways away, if at all possible. There were also ideas about, get this, a “Whale-Bus” by the year 2000. People thought that everyday travel would no longer be limited to the roads, and that we would also travel regularly through seas and oceans strapped to the back of a giant whale. Not even joking about this one.

But more often than not, these predictions tend to have some anthropocentric residue of the time in which they are created. For example, in Blade-Runner’s hyper futuristic depiction of 2015, while the flying cars and heavily lit vertical cities might feel at home, you can notice that Deckerd and pretty much all occupants of those cars aren’t wearing seat-belts. You would imagine that the speed of flying cars would make seat-belts a no-brainer, but, it turns out, at the time in which the movie was made, seat-belt laws still hadn’t even been passed in California. 

Besides, there are other similar tendencies with predictions. Predictions made during fruitful periods of life tend to be optimistic, whereas those that are made during particularly hard times such as the great depression tend to be more pessimistic. They all generally fail to foresee things like mobile phones and the internet, in the sense that these inventions were so revolutionary that it would have been hard to think of these things simply by extrapolating previous technology. 

The biggest source of these predictions have always been science fiction. And while it may seem that sci-fi of the past might have little use beyond the binders of some buffs notebook, science fiction is sometimes criminally underrated in terms of its importance in society. 

This is because the latest findings in physics or biology don’t quite attract the public's attention like a well-made sci-fi thriller. This gives sci-fi almost an exclusive position of authority, which also happens to be a responsibility, as sci-fi can then sculpt the public's ideas about technology and shift their focus from or towards certain issues. 

For example, too often, we see that the fascination of the future revolves around very fast flying vehicles and not so much about the threat of something like Artificial Intelligence. Even when A.I. does tend to get the limelight, the depiction is almost always of evil robots destroying humanity in one fell swoop. However, this largely misconstrues the deceivingly subtle nature of A.I. development. Robots, such as those depicted in Blade Runner and the Terminator series simply haven’t arrived yet. They are significantly smarter than the best robots we can create today. But the fact that evil robots haven’t yet come out of the horizon guns-blazing might mislead people into thinking that now is not yet the time to worry. Yet, until very recently, we were utterly oblivious to how social media, and the intelligent algorithms behind those platforms were completely overtaking our lives. The Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” shines light on this very phenomenon. A ratings-based dystopia that doesn’t seem too far from the world of Facebook likes and TikTok followers.

But, sci-fi does offer some more inspiring cues as well. This includes the ideas of reusable rockets - an idea that might be the foreword to humanity’s next chapter. In fact, when SpaceX and Blue Origin were in dispute over rights to land reusable rockets and associated claims, SpaceX cited a 1959 Soviet era Sci-fi film “Nebo Zovyot” with the original idea of doing so. 

These predictions are essentially wormholes into the past - into the aspirations of the people back then. How they thought, how they felt, and what was important to them. On the other end of the spectrum are time capsules - things that, instead of predicting the future, give us an insight into the past. The crypt of civilization is one such time capsule. It’s an airtight chamber built between 1937 and 1940 to capture what life was like in those times. It is not meant to be opened before the year 8113. Authors of this crypt tried their best to store as diverse a set of mementos as they possibly could. But despite that, they couldn’t have possibly stored everything. 

The creators of these capsules store only what they think is important. It too suffers from the same anthropocentrism that future predictions do. Even without a “predictive” element, these time capsules can actually vary in their accuracy, it seems. This stems from the fact that some time capsules are “manufactured” for the purpose of being opened later in the future. There are other types of time capsules of course. Those of the accidental type. The most iconic, perhaps, of these time-capsules, is the sunken Titanic. What makes it special, perhaps even more so than these magazine covers and movies, is the authenticity with which not just how it was all captured, but what was captured. Soon after the iceberg was hit, people had to choose between life and death. Some didn’t even get to make that choice. But they certainly weren’t choosing between which of the famous paintings on board they were going to keep, or which of the ornaments should go on the lifeboats. 

Similar, perhaps, in tragedy is the Chernobyl incident of 1986. The failure of the nuclear power plant resulted in an immediate evacuation that left people with very little choice as to what to take and what to leave. The nuclear fall-out in the region has rendered it inhabitable for some 20,000 years. The result is that the remnants of that day may remain largely untouched, preserving not just the items and the furniture, but the horror of those that left them there. In the centuries to come, who knows when we will actually get to truly revisit the place and possibly look back on the lives people had.

But both with future predictions and time capsules from the past, the fascination remains largely anchored around time and our belonging in it. Whether it's the nostalgia of the past or optimism of the future, we have always been captivated by times which are not our own. Sometimes they can offer poetic insights into what really matters to people in their dying moments. Sometimes they can reveal eerily accurate predictions about our present. And sometimes, they can set the standard for an imaginary future we have yet to achieve.

- MA, MM