Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Wonderful Future That Never Was by Gregory Benford and the Editors of Popular Mechanics

Back in the old days, the world was going to be so much better in the future. We'd conquer hunger, wars and disease, crime would be a thing of the past, and everybody would have their own jetcar or heli-car, and everybody would be comfortable, peaceful and happy. What happened to those predictions?

Well, for one thing, they were wildly off. For another, people became aware of a lot of downsides to the things they thought they wanted. It's all very well and good to promise people aerocars that combine a light plane and a car, but think about this: it's a lot harder to learn to fly an airplane than a car, and a single mid-air collision has a better chance of killing you than a rather simple car crash. For one thing, in a car, you aren't condemned to falling tens or hundreds of feet out of the air after the crash in a coffin made of metal. Second, think of the things stupid people do in cars... do you really want them doing these things in a car which is also a plane?

Third, a lot of the ideas were needlessly impractical. A Lightweight house that could go up in an afternoon and was made out of polymers? What happens on really windy days? Or phones with televisions that would show you the person you were talking to? Well, think about having to look good and made up every time the phone rings... or someone calling to see you while you are in your nightgown! Or in the shower... So, while we do have teleconferencing and other ways of combining video with phone calls, it was in much less demand than people thought it was going to be.

What's amazing is out of all the many advances predicted by Popular Mechanics, how many of them came true- ultrasound to diagnose disease, ultraviolet light to cure Vitamin D deficiencies, the rise of the computer, and even things like teleconferencing, which came out of the whole "video telephone" idea. But the hits are few and far between when most of the supposed technological advances are misses. Eating food made of sawdust doesn't even sound very appetizing, but you can see where most of the ideas weren't well thought out and why they failed, and in other cases the author explains why they never caught on with a wide variety of people. Things like houses that were mostly outdoor living spaces aren't really compatible with places that get extreme weather, like hurricanes, earthquakes, heavy snow (and to be honest, that's most of the country), while others are eventually coming true, like the truly paperless office.

This book provides a fun overview of the predictions of the past, and why most of them went horribly, horribly wrong. Written in a breezy and entertaining fashion, this book is a fun read that you don't have to plow through in one sitting- instead, you can nibble here and there among the past offerrings when you have the time and inclination. Well worth the read, I highly recommend this book.

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