Whilst watching Star Trek: Into Darkness a couple of weeks ago, I suddenly realised something that should have occurred to me long ago – we are living in the very future for which the world of fiction has been waiting expectantly since the 19th century.
To be honest, I should have been onto this sooner. The first time I saw Quantum of Solace in 2008, I remember seeing an amazing glass-topped, touch-sensitive table screen and thinking, “That’s all pie-in-the-sky, technology that good hasn’t been thought of!” Of course, I forgot that the iPhone was released the year before. Then, I had an epiphany when I discovered last year that my very own university just leaves tables like this lying around for anyone to use.
Obviously, 2008 is very recent history to talk about ground-breaking predictions. Instead, let’s take a look back at 1966. One of my all-time favourite movies, Thunderbirds Are Go!, was released that year. In it, we see a wristwatch, which also functions as a tiny videophone, and a photo album in which the pages are actually ultra-thin videophones.
With touchscreen watches and electronic paper already reaching the realm of affordability, it looks like Gerry Anderson was onto it. This is until you realise that according to the same man, in 2065 it seems we will revert to typewriters, 1960s generic American cars, and smoking once again becomes a ‘thing’. One thing that does seem to have come back into style is the architecture of the Tracy family residence on the secret island base, but that’s fashion for you!
However, one thing that should be admired about the works of Gerry Anderson is that their predictions are often for technologies that remain current now. Star Trek: The Original Series is set in the 23rd century, and its predictions for future technology had been and gone by 2010. The communicators were akin to flip-phones, and the crew aboard the Enterprise are often seen wielding heavy-looking touchscreen devices that require styluses and are as thick as books. They also predicted that the attention spans of the 21st century would be a lot more generous when they wrote this show – it drove me to fall asleep three times before I gave up on trying to watch it. Come on, Gene Roddenberry – get with the times!
As for Back to the Future, I won’t talk about the inevitable cries of “Where’s my hoverboard?” except to mention the cheeky nod to flying cars in Captain America: The First Avenger. However, BTTF Part II does predict, accurately, wall-hanging flat-panel televisions capable of showing more than one channel at a time. They also poke fun at the increasing prevalence of microwave meals, but fall down when suggesting that everyone still uses fax machines in 2015. (On an unrelated note, when I started a new job last year, I discovered that fax spam is a thing).
When watching ‘60s sci-fi, one inconsistency always arises – the idea that while you can have a fantastically tiny computerised device on your wrist (for example, a videophone), your computers are still going to be the size of a small pipe organ. I mean, it’s probably symptomatic of the stage of computer development at the time and a lack of understanding about processing power, but it’s kind of amusing none the less – why not miniaturise EVERYTHING, not just the little accessories?
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve also been doing a little research. It’s pretty clear that, in a way, the technologies of classic sci-fi are less ‘predictions’ and more ‘proposals’. It is possible (and in many cases confirmed at the source) that many designers across the years have taken cues from these old stories in the creation of new products. Certainly the prevalence of sci-fi fandom in scientific communities lends credence to this suggestion. Obviously, technology has evolved faster in some industries than others – we don’t live on the moon (UFO, Space: 1999), but we do have tiny electric watches and iPads (Thunderbirds, Star Trek). It’s hard to deny there are certain cues taken from classic science fiction in the development of modern technologies. Ultimately, it’s about what we want – in the 1960s, people thought a book-sized television would be cool and useful, and here in the 21st century, we agreed and made it reality. Generally, technology has developed at our convenience and to our demands – we decided colonisation of the moon was unnecessary, and as a consequence many boffins refocused on other industries.
As a side note, the future as predicted by more recent films is a little less ambitious – often there’s a lot of white and blue, and it tends to either be optimistically clean or pessimistically dirty. Star Trek: Into Darkness provides an interesting example of a clean future, but with retro trappings. The costumes of the civilians in 23rd century San Francisco have a distinctly 80s sci-fi appearance, while the road vehicles come direct from 90s concept car designs. The use of familiar elements in designing the film was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who didn’t want to jar audiences with too much speculative futurism. This could be a reflection of Star Trek’s changing role on the cinema landscape, however – no longer a future-maker, the franchise has seemed to play off its retro appeal since the 2009 reboot. In any case, it is interesting that a modern science fiction epic such as Into Darkness is taking more cues from the past than it is proposing for the future. [Note: I don’t want to continue with this line of thought in this article, because I might accidentally criticise Into Darkness, and I don’t want to do that because I liked it so much.]
One of the reasons sci-fi has captivated so many people for so many decades is its ability to produce not only engaging stories, but engaging ideas. The incredible technological advances that are suggested throughout so many productions have endured in the minds of those who have gone on to be world-builders in many industries. Insane fandoms notwithstanding, the modern world has a lot to thank science fiction for. Personally, I’m waiting to become a multi-billionaire ex-astronaut so I can create International Rescue.
UPDATE: Have a read of this article – it makes a very interesting point about the change in perception of computers on-screen.