Smartfailing the vintage future

A little while ago, Ben Betts blogged about a wonderful book called 2010: Living in the Future, which was written by Geoffrey Hoyle back in 1972.

2010: Living in the Future (1972)

I love these vintage visions of the future.

Reading the book prompted me to seek other predictions from yesteryear, and I found plenty at Vintage Future.

Doctor consults a child via AV media

A woman obtaining ready-to-eat meals out of a machine

Space station

Some predictions were remarkably accurate (eg telemedicine, prepackaged meals, orbital space stations) while others were way
off the mark.

This got me thinking

Why do some predictions of the future pan out so wrong?

I remember as a child being fascinated by a 19th century illustration of space travel that depicted a steam train flying among the stars and planets.

Clearly at that point in history, the futurist was so convinced of the modernity of the locomotive that he did not conceive any other possible mode of transport – let alone the depletion of fossil fuels.

It was perfectly natural for him to expect that, one day, trains would be hurtling through outer space.

More examples

Consider these…

Mechanical servant vacuuming the floor

Why is a robot pushing the vacuum cleaner?

Because contemporary practice was for the housewife to do it.

Naturally, then, the innovation was to replace her with a humanoid.

Shoppers in a supermarket push buttons to bring items on a conveyor belt. (1964)

Why must the shopper be at the store?

Because contemporary practice was for the shopper to visit the supermarket in person.

Naturally, then, the innovation was to automate the system on site.

Dick uses his famous 2-way wrist radio in Dick Tracy: America's Most Famous Detective. (1952)

Why is Dick talking into his watch?

Because wristwatches were the contemporary fashion.

Naturally, then, the innovation was to add an audio channel to that device.

Why did they miss the mark?

In each of the above examples, contemporary practice prejudiced the futurist’s expectations of future practice.

They were wearing blinkers.

Of course they had no concept of jet engines, infrared sensors, the World Wide Web and smartphones. But without an audacious imagination that dared to consider the possibility of these technologies, their predictions were doomed to fail.

Not so fast

It’s easy to look back with a smug sense of intellectual superiority. How rediculous those predictions were! How primitive the science!

But are we really any better today?

I hear a lot about innovation in the workplace, but I doubt we have mastered the creative thinking that is required to forecast beyond our immediate future with any sense of confidence.

If we don’t wrap our minds around the stuff that doesn’t yet exist, our “innovations” will become the latest examples of charming vintage.

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3 Comments on “Smartfailing the vintage future”

  1. Phillip Says:

    Hi Ryan,

    I think this is really interesting. I was involved in a research project looking at future trends for Australia and evaluating how the predictions worked out. The problem is something called ‘future bias’ where we imagine the future as an extension of today.

    Here is a link to a presentation I recently delivered for the Hargraves innovation network http://www.slideshare.net/canvale/where-is-the-future

    I was looking at three predictions from 1957 and started with looking at ‘tommorowland’ at Disneyland, where in 1957 you could have seen a microwave oven, remote controls for your flat screen television and mobile phones with video cameras. These things have all come to pass, but some of the predictions from this time have not.

    This is a very interesting area – and here is a link to the future study I was involved in at the Australian Business Foundation are here

    http://www.abfoundation.com.au/research_knowledge/research/193

    And here is a link to a LG watch phone
    http://www.lg.com/au/mobile-phones/all-lg-phones/LG-GD910.jsp

  2. Ryan Tracey Says:

    So it has a name: Future bias.

    Thanks Phillip, and great links too.

    Should I get myself an LG watch phone, or should I wait for a biophone implant?!


  3. […]  Scan Smartfailing the vintage future and enjoy the photos.  Got some of your own for real […]


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