Tech #8: Science Fiction's Broken Promises

Shouldn't we have robot maids by now? Shouldn't I get to work via spaceship? Or at least a hovercraft? Not that long ago, most Americans thought we'd be living in the space-age by 2010.  Indeed, Blade Runner is set in 2018 and the sci-fi show UFO was set in 1980.  Land of the Giants was supposed to take place in 1983 and let's not forget Space:1999. Well, it's 2010 - where's my robot maid and all the effing space ships?

The Jetsons originally aired in 1962..... who'd have guessed that 48 years later we'd still be traveling by the same ol' internal combustion engine (with a few more whistles and bells) rather than jet packs and space cruisers? What a disappointment.  Here's my list of empty promises brought to us via science fiction:
  1. Star Trek doors
  2. Jet packs
  3. Food in a pill
  4. Cryogenics
  5. Colonies on the Moon and Mars
  6. Robots to do our bidding
  7. Computers that can talk to you
  8. Laser guns
  9. Teleportation and Time Travel
  10. Dazzling sci-fi duds
However, I have to admit that, in one area, reality far surpassed science fiction - communication.

I don't think anyone predicted the level to which we as a planet have all become interconnected to each other and to information.  On my little hand-held Android I can send photos to someone on the other side of the world, get my GPS location, watch a movie, listen to any song ever recorded, read a book, etc. It's mind boggling when you stop and think about it.

So, although I'm disappointed I can't travel to work via posh hovercraft, I am blown away by how far we've come in terms of communication.  And what's really strange is that I remember being blown away by technology in 1983 with those crappy little computers that could barely do anything. 

This begs the question: Will I look back in 2033 and marvel at how I could possibly be impressed by the iPad and the Internet? It's an interesting thought.


  1. Great piece, Gilligan--had to laugh at the "Star Trek doors"! Something I'll never forget--my last day of school, third grade, 1970. We had a young teacher (Mr.Porter) who was a huge fan of '2001: A Space Odyssey' & asked us all to write a short essay of what we thought our lives would be like in 2001. I don't know why this stuck with me, but I remember writing that I'd be a psychologist or architect and living on the moon with my wife and children.

    You think by now we'd have a dinky lunar colony or two up there by now...

  2. You forgot about TV screens. In all the "future" stuff from the past, the screens are very small. Like 15 inches. OK, Star Trek's bridge had a big screen, but Star Wars, oh wait, that was a long time ago... Anyway, screens have gotten bigger and the graphics much better than what we usually see predicted in the these shows. Look at Buck Rogers, etc.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about communication. From the 1980s onward, technology development became almost single-minded about focusing on computers and global communication. Cars have only been enhanced, space exploration is dead, and the dream of a "smart" home which runs itself is not a priority. The sole focus is on having us all sit like zombies in front of a screen pressing buttons...just like I'm doing now.

  4. Couple of minor arguments:

    Jet packs - you really want to scorch your butt that badly? I'd rather have the Jetson car, thanks.

    Star Trek doors - at every supermarket

    Cryogenics - nope, they've got that. Just don't have an effective "defrost" cycle.

    Robots to do our bidding - you mean like the Asimo or Roomba?

    Computers that can talk to you - Well, they've got them. Sound a lot like Stephen Hawking, but still... (In both these last two cases, your problem is that we don't have a robust AI to run them.)

    Laser guns - Never have gotten past that whole "power pack" issue, have we? Technically, we've got them, they just have prohibitively large batteries

    Teleportation and Time Travel - I suppose I could type some lame line about how we are travelling in time, at the rate of one minute every 60 seconds or so...

    Dazzling sci-fi duds - now, here you're entirely wrong. We have 'em. It's just very few people want to look that stupid all day long...

  5. Have you seen this blog? http://www.paleofuture.com/

  6. Great post. I totally agree with you. I feel let down too. How long have people been talking about flying cars now? I'd really like to see the teleporting technology. If Willy Wonka can do it with a candy bar years ago, then we should be able to do it today. (That movie was a documentary wasn't it?)

  7. Some of these things DO exist as an above commenter pointed out.
    1. Star Trek doors: You can have 'em if you want 'em, just have to have them installed.
    2. Jet packs: They DO exist, but the flight time is very limited.
    3. Food in a pill: Also can be found easily.
    4. Cryogenics: Frost/defrost: yes, just not on living beings. We'll have to wait for this one.
    5. Colonies on the Moon and Mars: Not gonna happen anytime soon.
    6. Robots to do our bidding: They exist everywhere, the just don't look like C3P0.
    7. Computers that can talk to you: They exist, just not with any semblance of a decent conversation.
    8. Laser guns: They exist, but power source runs out after a few shots.
    9. Teleportation and Time Travel: This will remain the domain of SF authors forever.
    10. Dazzling sci-fi duds: I'm wearing them now.

  8. Hmmm... Luis and namelesscynic- sounds like most of these things exist, they just suck. We've got laser guns, but they only last one shot.... how extraordinarily lame.

    And, somehow the doors at Wal-mart just don't have the same pizzazz as the Star Trek doors.

  9. yeah, for one, they don't make that "shhwwiitt" sound.

    Wired magazine had a great article recently about why we don't have most of those things - or at least decent versions of them. The one that stuck with me was, "why we don't have vat grown meat." gee, I don't know.... maybe because it sounds freakin' disgusting!

  10. "Vat grown meat" is a great name for a band.

  11. No they don't make the "shhwwiitt" sound at Walmart, they make the "shhhiiittt" sound at Walmart. Oh my did I say that out loud? Sorry my turret's is acting up again.

  12. Gee gilligan,

    This sounds like the little boy, surrounded by all his toys, complaining he has nothing to play with. (or me, staring at my closet complaining I have nothing to wear)

    We sit down at machines that were not even conceived of when Star Trek was on, and we pay pennies for them compared to what an 8088 machine cost twenty years ago.

    We watch what we want when we want and where we want. We talk around the world for less money than it costs to mail a letter an equal distance. We carry in our pockets machines with more computing power than NASA had in 1969 when we landed on the moon.

    Medicines, manufacturing, publishing, communication, all have made tremendous strides in the last fifty years. We can ship almost anything almost anywhere on the planet in 24 hours.

    And we stare at our closets and complain that we have nothing to wear.