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The problem with the future

What will be is hard to know, but going back is not an option

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The world seems as if it's on a path of accelerated technological change, where new developments are limited only by the ability to imagine them. If that's true, however, why do we seem less imaginative and hopeful about the future than we were in the past?


The University of British Columbia has been asking its experts for the last five years to identify the advances that might transform the world in the future. They came up with nine ideas this year, including so-called "intelligent architecture" -- buildings that would anticipate the needs of their users and shift their shapes and functions accordingly.

In the world of journalism, new technology will decipher, analyze and put into context the zillions of messages that make up social media. It will tell us more about ourselves than we dreamed possible.

Robots will clean sewers and water mains, while medical tricorders -- the kind first seen on Star Trek in the 1960s -- will diagnose our health. Three of the nine new ideas involved technology that would allow doctors to predict a person's vulnerability to disease and organ failure.

It's all great stuff, but most of it was pretty predictable. Interesting, but ho-hum, as far as predictions go. Better buildings, better medicine, better journalism.

The World Future Society wasn't much more inspiring; its No. 1 prediction last year was that by 2030, everything you say and do might be recorded. It also forecast that the world's legal systems will be networked and that the day of the car as king of the road was coming to an end.

Compare today's indifferent prognostications with the idealism of Star Trek, which envisioned the day when crime and greed would no longer exist, and people would use their time to improve humanity. Much of the advanced technology featured on Star Trek actually came to pass in the form of cellphones, Bluetooth, automatic doors, laser surgery and more.

The Star Trek of the 1960s presented a fictionalized version of the future, but a Canadian TV series called Here Come the Seventies, a half-hour documentary program, looked at anticipated technological marvels and social innovations that could be expected in the 1970s. It was broadcast weekly for more than two years between 1970 and 1973. A list of the episodes (available at is itself a fascinating glimpse into the era.

People, the series wrongly predicted, would only work 20 hours a week in the future and boredom would be a real problem because everyone would have too much leisure time. Jet packs worn on the back would be viable means of personal transportation in cities; prisons would succeed as reformatories, but police would be armed with lasers and dye guns to fight crime.

Various episodes in the series correctly predicted the oil crisis and the need for new forms of clean energy. The end of privacy and the rise "super-snoopers" was also envisioned. Organic farming was promoted, but "could it feed the masses?" one episode asked.

Overall, the series presented an assessment of the future that was optimistic and imaginative, if naive and frequently incorrect.

The problem with the future is it has never lived up to its promise. Instead of rewarding us with lots of free time to improve ourselves, the future has left us busier than ever, and more stressed. Extremes (of wealth, poverty, crime, weather, etc.) are rising, not falling. Everything operates at high speed. We're wired for instant gratification. Relaxation is available by plugging into another world online.

Rather than elevate humanity, the future has exposed our natural instincts for bullying, eavesdropping and snooping on the private affairs of others. The future has not made us better parents, much less better people.

The problem with the future, then, is that it's not Star Trek, it's not even Here Come the Seventies, but hopefully it's not 1984 or Brave New World, or any of the visions of the past that predicted gloom and doom for a society that was advancing too quickly.

On the other hand, new homes that anticipate our needs sound pretty good. I also look forward to getting my own medical tricorder so I can self-diagnose with greater accuracy than I get from the Internet now. I can't wait for the new journalism of the future.

The future may not have lived up to the hype, but can anyone imagine going back to the typewriter and rabbit ears for the TV?

Now, if I could just figure out how to use all these new gadgets. I've been resisting the future, even though I know it's inevitable. Just accept it, everyone says, and you'll feel better and have less stress.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2011 H11

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