Visions of the retro-future

Visionaries dream of the future. They dream of boundless potential in new technology with the power to remake and advance society.

Their dreams live partly in reality, partly in fantasy. Futurists were most fervent in America after 1957 when the USSR launched its first artificial satellite, Sputnik, spurring the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States. 1968 brought the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie in which visits to the Moon were commonplace journeys. One year later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually walked on the Moon. Anything seemed possible.

A flurry of futuristic visions followed: Visions of extravagant space exploration, skyscraper runways, helper robots, flying cars, and advanced biometric identification systems. This was what today—more or less—was supposed to look like. We were promised jetpacks.

Ultimately, while we didn't get that future, the real 2012 is still pretty cool. Come along and check out some notable retro-future dreams from all over the world, from the late-nineteenth-century France to late-twentieth-century America, of what they expected the early 21st century to be like.

Augmented learning

Wikimedia Commons

This rather bizarre—but beautifully drawn–postcard was illustrated by French artist Jean-Marc Côté around 1899, according to The Public Domain. The captions on the top right read, “In the year 2000” and shows schoolchildren learning through a contraption connected to their heads—they absorb knowledge quickly (see books being funneled into the machine) without much effort on the part of the teacher. While today we have the audiobook; the artist’s approach to education may have been flawed as learning thrives more through the slow introduction of information and repetition (unless 19th-century French children had photographic memories).

Flying cars

Among the fascinating concepts that appeared in 1950s and 1960s magazines were those of the flying personal vehicle, ranging from the slim, high-powered aeorocar to the bulky areal sport utility vehicle. This cover of the July 1957 issue of Popular Mechanics depicts just that—although purely fantastical: A sleek yellow and red aeorocar that can transport the suburban mom to the grocery store or mall within a few seconds. While there have been prototypes and tests of flying cars, we’ve still a long way to go before the flying car is commonplace.

Live television

Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an early twentieth-century vision of modern-day television printed on a postcard from Hildebrands, a famous German chocolate company at the time. An inscription on the lower right reads, “Theater in the year 2000.” A woman—presumably an opera singer—and her orchestra are to the right, and to the left is an audience listening using a device that resembles an early phone. The opera singer’s image is also projected onto the wall to the left, demonstrating the here-but-spatially-distant essence of today’s live TV. The key difference here, though, is that only the people in the next room can see her ghost-image. Although today’s television is more accessible to the masses, this version offers a more personal touch.

Skyscraper airports

The publishers of Popular Mechanics recently put together a book entitled The Wonderful Future That Never Was, which surveys technological predictions featured in the magazine between 1903 and 1969. In it, Popular Mechinics highlights a square runway atop a skyscraper in the city that was conceptualized in 1926 as a solution to the inevitable problem of landing airplanes in cities. The magazine proposed four landing stages “to span 1,900 square feet. The entire platform can handle 80,000 passengers and 30,000 tons of freight yearly.” While an imaginative solution, it is far from being structurally sound; this modern conceptual equivalent has yet to be taken up for good reason.

Designs on space exploration

Courtesey John Sisson, Dreams of Space blog

Fast-forward to mid-twentieth century Russia. Here’s a beautiful and uncanny vision of what Russians in 1950 dreamt as the future of space exploration as ibspired by the pre-World War II children’s book The Rocket. It depicts idyllic, spectacular landscapes on the Moon, with prancing explorers on the surface and elongated and spherical rockets serving as transportation. After World War II, the Soviet Union imagined a time where rockets would be used as transportation into space; little did they know of their prescience.

Videophone

Videoconferencing through services like Google Hangouts is one vision of the future that came true—and turned out better than anyone envisioned. [Credit: Google]

This is one retro-futuristic vision that has come true, though it showed up in a form that few predicted. With Skype, iChat, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime, videophone technology is all around us. What most people don’t realize is that a prototype version of the videochat technology made an appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the film, Dr. Heywood R. Floyd steps into the “picturephone” booth to make a call, fumbles to remember the number, and uses a plastic credit card to pay. While the “picturephone” does its job, our modern mobile equivalents win in speed, size, ease and affordability.

Polygraph test—with a twist

Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Bladerunner depicts a society with a problem: Insubordinate Androids running around looked so human that the police couldn't discern the difference. The solution to this hypothetical problem lies in the Voight-Kampff test—a polygraph test that would monitor for abnormal biometric responses—which would then indicate that the subject is not human. Detecting fishy character through physiological reactions— specifically eye movement—is still somewhat the stuff of science fiction today, although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did put out a call for bidders a few years ago to perform research on eye scans to detect risk-prone individuals in airports, according to The Guardian.

What dreams may come

In time, some retro-futuristic ideas have re-emerged and become reality, like auditory learning, live TV, and a mobile videochat system (that surpasses its retro-expectations). But some have yet to show up, such as the flying car—a vision vivid and longstanding in contemporary American culture. It lives in that amorphous realm bordering reality and dream. And some are in-progress and near fruition—from complete, immersive virtual reality to artificial intelligence, cloning, stem cell research, to what your dreams can conjure up.

So the question is, what does the future look like to you?

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