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Goldstuck on Gadgets

No, you can’t have your jetpack now

Why don’t science fiction visions of the future come true? Why haven’t the great technology predictions of the past century given us flying cars, robot slaves and food replicators? Well, that may not be such a bad thing, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

One of the more popular themes among futurists who speculate about the shape of the world in 10 or a 100 years’ time is why similar predictions from the past have not come to fruition.

For example, why don’t we have personal flying cars floating in well-ordered lanes between skyscrapers, if it was depicted in a movie like Metropolis almost a century ago? Why aren’t robots cooking and cleaning for us? And can I have my jetpack now, please, I’m rather in a hurry.

Instead, we have devices no one had ever imagined we even needed. We’re running around with portable gossip devices attached to our ears: you can watch the news on TV screens attached to treadmills at the gym to assist with blood pressure: and social networks allow you to demand, ‚Do you know who I am?‚ to an audience of hundreds of millions.

Why didn’t they see THAT coming?

The answer is simple: half of the predictions are based on assumptions of linear progress of what we already have, whereas the actual inventions are based on a brainwave about what we could have. So rather than trying to improve on what we already have, we try to create not only new products, but entirely new categories of product. And, to sell those products, we create not only new market places, but also markets that don’t even have places.

The culprit for the other half of these predictions is science fiction (SF). Good SF usually imagines the world differently, but readers of that SF believe that these products of wild imaginations are signposts to the future. Instead, they are merely signposts to our psyche.

So it is that ever-sleeker cars never turned into flying cars: robots never turned up on our doorsteps to take over the cooking, cleaning and thinking: and, most disappointingly of all, bicycles didn’t turn into jetpacks.

Time machines? Teleportation? Immortality? Sorry buddy, but here: have a YouTube, Guitar Hero and iPad instead.

Food replicators? Weather control? Artificial intelligence? Message from God: I’m still in charge here.

And we’re only four years away from the future envisaged in the iconic Back to the Future movie trilogy, which gave the youth of the world their first vision of hoverboards. But the movies were made almost three decades ago, and nary a hoverboard on the shop shelves ‚ although YouTube offers instructions to build one and you can probably buy a patched together prototype on eBay.

That’s the irony: we appear so agonisingly close to many of these breakthroughs. We can replace limbs and organs, we can teleport a sub-atomic particle, and we can zap an iced-up chunk of vegetation with microwaves to turn it into a gourmet meal.

As a result, it SEEMS as if they SF future is arriving. The rapid pace of technological advances in handheld and desktop gadgets reinforces that feeling. But, even though we can turn cars into self-contained wireless hotspots, they still won’t drive themselves. Worse, they have to be driven by idiots who can’t read speed limit signs and fervently believe that seatbelts were not meant for their kids.

Imagine those same idiots in jetpacks: while it would speed up the weeding out of stupidity from the gene pool, it would also reduce the average life expectancy of innocent bystanders.

The future is an anti-climax. And for that we can be grateful.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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