Believe it or not, we are currently living in the 21st Century. Yep, Space age 2018. I’m sure we’re now on a very advanced stardate, say 344566 or 445444. Welcome to the age of supersonic travel, MagLev railways, space hotels, gene splicing, VR, and regenerative surgery. Except we’re not are we? I mean just look outside. The nearest we’ve come to creating an AI was the ‘tamogotchi’. VR and motion control make you look like a bit of pillock as you wave your arms about, fending off imaginary threats from the electronic ether, coerced by a global corporation into looking like an extra in a shoddy cyberpunk film from the early 90’s.
Even in 2018, if we are unfortunate enough to get an infection, we still take antibiotics. If our skin is damaged, no ‘dermal regenerators’ for us, just TCP and an Elastoplast. Broken bones still need to be physically set and the tools to do so would be largely recognisable to the Ships Surgeon on the Tudor flagship, the Mary Rose.
I was born in the mid-1980’s and by my teenage years in the mid-90’s, I could see a gleaming future full of wonder. I used to watch Tomorrows World on BBC 1 and the short-lived How Do They Do That? on ITV and was utterly entranced by ‘Mars weekend’ on BBC 2 in 1997. These irresponsible programmes utterly skewed how I would perceive my future.
I remember believing that the International Space Station would be the first step towards humanity going out into the solar system. NASA made exploration of the Red Planet seem like a real and tangible goal, the next ‘Giant Leap’ for humankind. Now, I’d even settle for a sample return mission in my lifetime. The Mars Pathfinder and its compact ‘Sojourner’ rover were to be exactly that; a pathfinder for humans on the Red Planet, not a prop for Matt Damon to contact NASA in a modern retelling of Robinson Crusoe. Non-polluting, self-driving, hydrogen cars should have been on the streets by now. Even better, they should have been driverless and safe. Space tourism was meant to be available to those on median incomes, not just for a few members of the transnational capitalist class. It’s all a bit deflating really.
The much vaunted technological ‘singularity’ beloved by futurists is as distant and unimaginable to us as the internet was to the Georgians. Grafting a USB stick underneath your skin doesn’t make you the first transhuman. If only it was that simple.
This feeling of hapless ennui is exacerbated by the positive view that people in the 1950’s and 1960’s seemed to have had of their own future. Think the ‘World of tomorrow’ type infomercials. Consider the Apollo Moon Landings. The ‘Island’ concepts for massive peopled and permanent space stations. The massive ‘Star raker’ SSTO. The British ‘V’ Bombers, The XB-70, which still looks like it managed to somehow teleport itself from the far future. The rest of the experimental ‘X’ planes. The Boeing 2707. The Ford Nucleon. The Soviet Ekranoplan. Inventions like the Hovercraft; a whole new form of transportation! Imagine.
Even culture in the 1960’s appeared to promise an amazing future. I grew up watching re-runs of Star Trek. The slightly kitsch original series with the beehives, mini-skirts and the irrepressible Captain Kirk, who would deal with any and all threats to galactic civilisation by either punching it or attempting to seduce it, all while wearing a tight-fitted and snug yellow jumper.
Over three decades on from my birth, the world seems largely the same as the 1980’s when I was born. People still use the internal combustion engine. Large parts of our transport infrastructure were constructed in the 1880s never mind the 1980s. If you live in a rural area the trains themselves weren’t even new when Margaret Thatcher was in the closing years of her premiership. Rather than the gentle hum of an electric motor, it’s still the rumbling, polluting, diesel engine that gets many of us to work on time. Despite the best efforts of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, space tourism is not yet a reality.
Perhaps the only thing that seems to live up to my optimistic, teenage view of the future, when looking forward from the 1990’s is the smartphone. A miniature computer, far, far more capable and stylish than the clunky ‘palm pilots’ that I remember. One of the true marvels of technology and science and one that is predominately used for the constant (over)sharing of the mundane minutiae of life.
However, we are still capable of producing marvels and sending our intrepid robotic explorers into the cosmos. In 2012, NASA landed a rover the size of a Mini Cooper, with pinpoint precision on the surface of Mars. Robotic endeavours such as ‘Big Dog’ are progressing apace. Humanity has succeeded in taking surface images from six different planetary bodies in an image that should be as well known as the ‘Pale Blue Dot’.
But I still want my positive, teenage, view of the future back. Perhaps the notion that we are living at the ‘end of history’ has jaded many of us? Perhaps the small black mirror that we have in our hands is draining us of so much mental energy that we no longer bother to gaze up at the stars anymore and instead prefer the ethereal world that we have at our fingertips? Perhaps, with the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, we lost some cultural and political drive and it has yet to return to us? Non-Western nations, particularly China, are now ascendant in space exploration. The idea of a taikonaut making it to Mars first isn’t that far fetched. Perhaps the link between science fact and science fiction is more tenuous now than it was in the 1960’s?
It may be all of the above. But humanity can still do a lot with the technology and engineering skills that we have. I hope that my generation may be just living in a slight cultural lull before the torch is passed on, and others find the will to go forward and believe in themselves and create the future that I imagined as a teenager.