A 1910 imagining of a “correspondence cinema” 0f the 21st century- not too far off from Skype or Facetime.
And so we come to the year 2020 and the first day of the third decade of the 21st century.
Thinking about it whimsically, this is very likely to be the last year I see ending in a zero. I I am 77 years old and, considering that I have been diabetic most of my life, have suffered a heart attack in ’95 and a stroke in 2004, the likelihood of reaching 87 is probably quite a bit less that 50/50. I’ve already lived longer than I ever expected.
Oh well. C’est la vie. There is not much any if us can do about aging other than making sure we give meaning to our days.
This morning with the streaming news on TV in the background I noticed the fireworks over Hong Kong – broadcast live. I smiled as I thought about our TV when I was a kid- a 12 inch box with three channels with nothing live other than what was broadcast in a studio. Simply amazing. And I don’t even own a smart phone.
On the other hand back in ;69 I really thought we would have a colony on Mars by now. Didn’t happen.
I have often thought about the future. What will the world look like in 2100?
Who knows. Musings about the future can only be based on what is going on now, from which we observe trends and then extrapolate the possible affects of current events.
What did the folks living in 1900 think would occur in the 20th century?
Well no one predicted the great world wars (actually one war in two parts) which would kill 100 million. The predictions primarily revolved around the advances in technology which would change the world.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell had patented the device known as the telephone, which used wires to transmit the sound of human speech. As this device spread, its capabilities allowed voices to cross enormous distances. In 1915, one such “wireless telephony” system had allowed a Virginia man to speak to another in Paris while a man in Honolulu listened in — a distance of 4,900 miles (about 7,886 kilometers), setting the record for the longest distance communication at that time.
Bell marveled at this achievement and the change it had already created, predicting that “this achievement surely foreshadows the time when we may be able to talk with a man in any part of the world by telephone and without wires.”
Extrapolating forward, Bell predicted a future in which this technology allowed people to pretty much do anything remotely: “We shall probably be able to perform at a distance by wireless almost any mechanical operation that can be done at hand,” he said. And he wasn’t wrong.
People a century ago were obsessed with the travel of the future. By 1914, the Ford Motor Company had developed the first moving assembly line, allowing the company to produce 300,000 cars in a single year. With transit beginning to transform society, futurists began imagining a world in which every person from Miami to Moscow could own their very own automobile. In that regard, they weren’t too far off — 95 percent of American households own cars, according to a 2016 government report. But those imagined automobiles looked a bit different from the ones we know today.
“On January 6, 1918, the headline of an article in The Washington Times announced that the “Automobile of Tomorrow Will Be Constructed Like a Moving Drawing Room.” The author was writing about a prediction in Scientific American that described the car of the future. It would be water-tight and weather-proof, with sides made entirely of glass, and seats that could be moved anywhere in the vehicle. It would be decked out with power steering, brakes, heating, and a small control board for navigation. A finger lever would replace the steering wheel.”
Air travel was foremost in people’s minds: The Wright brothers made their first successful flight of a powered airplane in 1903, spurring other inventors and engineers to test innumerable aircraft designs before World War I. As such, it’s not surprising therefor that folks imagined that, by the year 2000, nearly every form of transportation would be via air. Aerial taxi services, floating dirigible battleships, a flying postman, and air-based public transportation all appear in the whimsical depictions of our predicted current day.
Passenger air flight did become a reality; we are still waiting for the personal flying machine and the flying car. Bell for one, got it right. He mused “However much money we may invest in the construction of huge aerial machines carrying many passengers, we don’t have to build a road.”
In 1900, Smithsonian curator and writer John Elfrith Watkins, Jr., penned an article titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” for The Ladies’ Home Journal. Looking forward at the fresh new century, Watkins imagined a world in which technology wasn’t left in the hands of industry or the military — instead, it would be redirected to entertain and convenience everyday people.
Watkins predicted that technology would one day bring distant concerts and operas to private homes, sounding “as harmonious as though enjoyed from a theatre box,” and that “persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.” He also predicted that color photographs would one day be quickly transmitted around the world, and that “if there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later.” One can only guess what he would have thought of the selfie.
Though the mechanically-cooled refrigerator wasn’t invented until 1925, and wouldn’t become widely used until the 1940s, Watkins correctly predicted that “refrigerators will keep great quantities of food fresh for long intervals,” and that “fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea” would deliver fruits and vegetables from around the world to provide produce out-of-season.
On the other hand, Watkins believed that humans would essentially make ourselves a into super-species, with physical education starting in the nursery, until “a man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.” Unfortunately, our global obesity problem shows the reality was, in fact, quite the opposite.
To futurists of the early 1900s, it seemed obvious that robots and automation would be essential to 21st century people, serving as our chauffeurs, cleaning the house and scheduling the laundry. Not yet.
Perhaps the most surprising predictions from the past century regard fossil fuels and the environment. Yes, today some people still resist transitioning away from fossil fuels and ignore the scientific consensus on climate change. But bright minds of the early 20th century were already theorizing that we would one day have to quit our fossil fuel habit.
As early as 1896, scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated that doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise Earth’s temperature between 8 and 9 degrees Celsius. In his 1908 book Worlds in the Making, an attempt to explain the evolution of the universe to a popular audience, Arrhenius was convinced that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double within a few centuries.
Scientists as a whole wouldn’t come around to Arrhenius’ ideas, or recognize that burning carbon-based fuels had an adverse effect on our planet, for at least a century. Yet even before scientists understood the climate effects of fossil fuels, futurists were predicting that we would have to drop our use of coal and oil before long.
“In relation to coal and oil, the world’s annual consumption has become so enormous that we are now actually within measurable distance of the end of the supply. What shall we do when we have no more coal or oil!” – Alexander Graham Bell – 1917.
It is surprising therefore that with such great thinkers in1900, no one predicted the social upheavals wrought by communishm, fascism, world war, atomic weapons and cold war. Today technology races ahead to the moon and mars, reproduction of DNA, methods to control birth, harnessed atomic and solar energy, artificial intelligence etc. yet still our social problems and the difficulties of changing established institutions remain.
Corporations have become richer and more powerful than nations but without any responsibility to citizens or community. Your worth is only as a consumer and a provider of data.
I do not know and cannot predict what will happen to us in the next ten years, let alone this century. I wonder if we will still exist as a species in the year 3000.
Will we have populated the planets or have wiped ourselves out? I cannot see the way to humanity living in total harmony anytime soon, a la Star Trek. One hundred years ago many scoffed at Bell, laughing at the idea than in a century we would still be burning fossil fuels. Of course we wouldn’t. Yet here we are – still burning coal, oil and gas.
I’m starting to feel like one of the Flintstones.
But hey – know what? The future will be made by the young and future generations. The future just doesn’t happen. It is MADE.
So in the end it’s not my problem!
Happy New Year!