A few years ago, people talked about building a bridge to the 21st century. Now that we’re there, the phrase seems as odd as building a causeway to five o’clock. As Midnight brought in the year 2000 (or 2001 if you prefer), something odd began to sink in. For people of my generation, who had lived through the tarnished promises of the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the Computer Age, and the This That and Another Age, the year 2001 was a gateway. We waited twenty, thirty, forty years and some longer to pass though that gate into a time when spaceships the size of ocean liners plied between colonized planets, where cities were colourful collections of brand new towers without a single old building or blade of grass, Where conference call services are performed by holographic projectors, where people wore jumpsuits like they were the togas of a technocratic Rome, where robots were our powerful and obedient servants, and where jetpacks were as common as galoshes.
Boy, were we off base. It isn’t simply that the predictions were wrong. No one with half a brain really expected that sort of accuracy. And true, though some marvels did not come to pass, others that were and weren’t predicted did. We certainly live very different lives from that of our fathers and grandfathers. That is not in dispute. But what did not happen is what many expected, though never talked about much. Assuming that we dodged the 1984, Brave New World bullet, our future was supposed to be a sort of technocratic, atomic-powered, computer-controlled, antiseptic, space-travelling Jerusalem that would at last free us from the curse of Eden and original sin. We expected some how, some way that we would be on the road to being freed from the human condition. We expected a sort of bloodless, benign French Revolution with Hugo Gernsback as our Voltaire and Carl Sagan as our Robespierre. And what did we get? The City of Man with Tivo. The fact is, science fiction and popular science had set the bar so high that only the Second Coming with ray guns would have satisfied.
Still, there was a romantic innocence about the 20th century’s view of the future. It was a sort of plastic Camelot; in both senses of the term. So, settle on your jetpack, hitch up your blaster, and tune in the videotron as we tour Future Past!