Futurologists of the past

How did the futurologists of the past envisage everyday life in 2006? Hamish McRae introduces a bold attempt from 1950 to imagine the 21st-century
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The Independent Online

We all get things wrong, especially those of us who write about the future. But what is interesting about the exercise is what is reasonably easy to project forward and what is virtually impossible to foresee. As a simple rule, we can get technology more or less right. But getting the social and economic consequences of new technology, still less the wider matter of societal change, is extraordinarily difficult.

You can see this in the exercise from the magazine Popular Mechanics, reprinted over the next few pages. It is easy to jeer at suggestions that we would all have personal helicopters, but transatlantic jet travel came rather earlier than suggested - even if the economics killed Concorde in the end. Maybe we don't use disposable plates every day, but we use disposable mugs for our coffee. True, our food does not come in frozen bricks but a huge proportion of Americans - and increasingly Britons - don't cook. Instead they assemble meals from supermarket packs or phone for a take-away. Faxing is now seen as old technology. And what is the internet if it is not a television connected to a phone line?

But of course what there isn't, and I suppose that is reasonable enough - this is Popular Mechanics, after all - is any sense of the social changes that result from the widespread application of technology. It would not be possible to site call-centres in Bangalore if international telephony was not virtually free. Without cheap international transport it would not be possible to buy the very-evident Chinese fireworks. Nor does the writer see that technology would make it possible for close to 10 per cent of the British workforce to work online from home.

Indeed, writing as someone who remembers 1950, just, the biggest changes seem to me not so much technical but societal. We did the same things then as we do now. My grandparents had a television and I still remember watching Muffin the Mule. My first flight was in 1950, in a DC3 from the Isle of Man to Liverpool. (The loo at the back opened up to flush and you could see the sea when you pulled the chain.)

But family structures were different. Mothers didn't work. There was no unemployment. There was virtually no inflation. Crime was much lower. Middle-class people such as my parents hadn't gone to university. Divorce carried a social stigma. There was no immigration into Britain. There was rationing. And we were all pretty poor.

I suspect that the most important changes over the next 50 years will be social, not technical. My bets for 2050: marriage makes a big come-back; crime returns to 1950s levels; and people have larger families. But then I won't be around to be proved wrong...

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