Monday, April 9, 2012

Where's my retro future?

One of the most popular catchphrases for expressing disappoinment in the lack of technological progress during the 21st Century is "Where's my flying car?" It's so common that Google retrieves 188,000 hits for the phrase. Flying cars aren't alone among examples of things Americans thought we'd have by now; Popular Science has an entire slideshow of technologies people expected would exist by now, including personal jetpacks, nuclear fusion, and robot armies, along with reasons why they haven't appeared. Too bad, as nuclear fusion would come in very handy right now. However, that 2008 slideshow included an image of a prototype of a flying car, one that has actually been developed and flies.
Well-heeled travelers tired of airport lines have some good news today from Terrafugia.

The maker of the Transition flying car said that a production prototype, the D2, made its first flight earlier in March, a step toward what it hopes will be commercial availability within the next year. Company engineers took the Transition for an eight-minute flight around Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

The Transition is two-seat personal aircraft that is legal to drive on streets and highways and that runs, both in the air and on the road, on unleaded gasoline. The wings fold up to make the plane about six feet tall, seven and a half feet wide, and 19 feet long when driving.
Not everyone will get a flying car, though. Not only will this thing be an energy hog, it is expected to cost $279,000. Even so, people are putting down $10,000 deposits on them.

Of course, anything that is equal parts cool and ridiculous will get the attention of Next Media Animation. The Terrafugia Transition already has.

While the text accompanying the video doesn't use the catchphrase, it sidles right up next to it.
Promised in sci-fi shows and movies of the past, people have long expected flying cars to be part of their everyday lives at some point in the future. Personal flying saucers are standard issue in the Jetsons cartoon, which takes place in the still well-off year of 2062. The flying cars of Back to the Future Part II are a little more within reach. Doc Brown and Marty McFly cruise the skyways in 2015, just three years from now.
Sorry, the future in Back to the Future isn't happening, even if the rich are getting their flying cars.*

Flying cars aren't the only prediction science fiction got wrong, as the Bloomberg article Visions of a Cashless Society: Echoes points out.**

Many technological innovations surfaced first in science fiction and then became a reality.

Think of Jules Verne imagining a flight to the moon and long-range submarines decades before such things existed; H. G. Wells warning of aerial bombardments prior to World War I; or Arthur C. Clarke writing on geosynchronous communications satellites in 1945.

But literature foresaw only limited advances in the way we exchange money. Capitalism was the default social organization of American science fiction, and few authors put much energy into imagining its future. By the 1940s, many had adopted the term "credit" as the universal name for future currencies, including Isaac Asimov in his two main strands of work (the far-future "Foundation" saga and the near-future "Robot" stories). Usually, however, "credit" functioned as a simple linguistic substitution for "dollar," and one reads of credits being slapped onto counters, flung to parking attendants, drawn from pockets and the like.

Such examples tell how readers and writers of science fiction were more interested in the future of rockets, physics and social dynamics than they were in banking, economics or organizational innovation. Disregarding the functioning of the economy even led to notable inconsistencies, as in the Star Trek universe, where the Federation is supposed to have evolved beyond money, but dialog and plot elements continue to reference trading, gambling and the exchange of credits.
Speaking of Star Trek, that's another retro future that hasn't happened yet, as PoliticusUSA asks "Gene Roddenberry, Where is My Star Trek Future?"
I want to know what happened to my Star Trek future. Gene Roddenberry promised us so much. We got communicator/cell phone; We got our PADD/iPad/Kindle etc; and a lot of other technologies look more possible every day. The trappings are nice, but where is my Star Trek social future?
White and black men and women can kiss now like Kirk and Uhura, and even get married but racism is far from dead, as our first black president – and Trayvon Martin - have discovered. Star Trek was full of alien species but on our Earth even human aliens can’t get respect. And where is the rest of it: the lack of prejudice, the tolerance of differing cultures, values and beliefs? And by the way, where the hell is my fact-based, scientifically-provable world?

I want to know, because right now, I’m hopping mad. We have all these wealthy and powerful corporations who should theoretically be able to give us the rest of our technology (or improve what we have) – along with a sustainable world – but they seem more interested in screwing us over in various and inventive ways while enriching themselves, and social conservatives have made Star Trek’s social reality a complete and utter balls up. Instead of science and tolerance we have superstition and prejudice.
Read the rest of the post; it's a righteous rant. Just the same, the author is premature in his being disgruntled. After all, the original series is set in 2265 according to Wikipedia. That's 250 years off. We have plenty of time to get there, including a nuclear world war. Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki, has that conflict running from 2026 to 2053. According to the future history of Star Trek, a horrible 21st Century isn't a bug, it's a feature. We might have the Star Trek future he wants after all. We'll just have to suffer for the next 50 years to get there.

As for the monthly theme, why not pick the obvious song, the theme to The Jetsons? The problem is that it isn't a poem. Even so, here it is.

And now for a song that actually has poetic lyrics, "Faith of the Heart," the theme song to Star Trek: Enterprise.

There's your Star Trek future!

*The in-universe explanation would be that Marty made the wrong choice in 1985, so he and the rest of us didn't get on that timeline. The real explanation is that the American people made the wrong choice in 1980. The problem is that I don't know of any way they would have made the right choice, so we're stuck with the outcome. I should know, 1980 was the first presidential election I voted in. At least it wasn't my fault; I may have been a Republican at the time, but I voted for Anderson, not Reagan (expecting me to vote for Carter was too much, as my roommates found out). The election was a real popular landslide, as the electorate just turned on Carter at the end. It wasn't 2000, which was an extremely close call made by the refs. That I could imagine being very different, but not 1980. Too bad.

**I originally posted this excerpt in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Yuri's Night 2012 edition). Once again, I'm recycling.

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