The best t-shirt I ever owned was a classic from Threadless. It declared: “This was supposed to be the future. They lied to us. Where is my jetpack? Where is my robotic companion?”
By looking at the news this week, it appears that maybe my t-shirt was simply premature. Perhaps “they” didn’t really lie to us. The 21st century didn’t begin with flying cars and robotic servants, but maybe it just took a little longer to get the ball rolling.
Let’s face it: There are two types of futuristic visions: The happy vision vision from the 50’s and 60’s where we collectively looked forward to a better age à la the Carousel of Progress, and the sad vision of the future revolving around apocalyptic themes and Big Brother surveillance.
In the early 2000’s, when I bought my t-shirt, we had to console ourselves that our new technical age would be more focused on digital advancement—stuff in the “small” space. The future was circuit boards and Internet-connected thermostats as opposed to major physical advances that moon shuttles might represent. Like kids who didn’t get what they wanted for their birthdays, we glumly gazed at the little disk-shaped robots that vacuumed our floors instead of a chatting with a wisecracking robot named Rosie that pushed a Hoover around.
Turns out we just had to be patient. Our “happy” futuristic imagination has been recaptured, and visionaries like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Larry Page are carrying humanity forward on their very rich shoulders. For instance, the Hyperloop promises 700-mph city-to-city transport speeds while reusable spacecraft tease us with affordable space tourism.
What better metaphor could represent the return of cool, new, big tech and the destruction of old than the creation of New York’s beautiful new Kosciuszko bridge and the planned demolition of the old one?
The new Kosciuszko bridge will feature LED-light shows synchronized to music. Yes, our physical world is getting a futuristic facelift. The emerging face of the 21st-century New York City skyline is one of the Freedom Tower, tall and skinny apartment buildings, and dancing-light bridges.
More future frenzy was whipped up earlier this week when media outlets swooned over the emerging flying car market. The coverage was driven by footage released by the company Kitty Hawk, whose prototype resembles an enormous drone combined with an ATV and a pontoon boat.
The flying car thing is getting real fairly quickly: Uber promises to deploy flying car technology to Dallas Ft. Worth and, as Wired put it, “of course Dubai” by 2020. (Note to any lawyers out there looking for an interesting new niche!)
And another time-honored tradition of futuristic movies and TV shows is coming to fruition as well: The surveillance state. (Just watch Black Mirror, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.) This is definitely the “sad” future stuff. The current climate in Washington is very telecom-company friendly and intent on rolling back consumer protections. Make no mistake: There is nothing good about these things for the average Internet-using Joe.
In real life, we recently covered Congress’s legislation enabling Internet Service Providers to share our browsing histories. Now Net Neutrality is endangered, which will allow ISP’s to treat traffic to different Internet sites differently. This development means there could be a day when articles like this one—one that’s critical of the telecom industry—are throttled so they load slowly or not at all.
So it looks like the future’s finally here. The creator of my t-shirt would probably be pretty happy today—we’ve even got those jetpacks. Unfortunately, along with the happy version of the future, we’re going to have to live with the sad one as well.