What are paleofutures (the futures that didn’t happen)?

Pwned! House-moving in 2000 as visualized around 1900. (PD)

Pwned! House-moving in 2000 as visualized around 1900. (PD)

Paleofutures are the futures that were predicted in the past. It’s fascinating to look back at what people of the past thought would happen in their future. Occasionally the predictions turn out to be correct—a hundred years ago, one writer predicted that we would all be carrying wireless telephones—but more often the predictions turn out to be wildly wrong.

There are two basic types of paleofuture. The optimistic futures predict a world moving towards paradise. The pessimistic futures predict a world moving towards apocalypse. Rarely does a predicted future include a mixture of both.

The predominant paleofuture tells us a lot about the time in which it was generated. The turn of the century, around 1900, was a time of immense hope and optimism, and people looked forward to a wonderful future. The 1970s, on the other hand, stand out as a decade for predictions of nuclear destruction, suffocating pollution, hunger, fuel shortages, and the takeover of society by computers.

A few staple predictions form recurring themes. Predictions of personal mobility by flying car are over a hundred years old and are still being made, but anything beyond a prototype is as far away now as it ever was. Fusion power has been perpetually ten or twenty years away for as long as I have been alive.

Another staple prediction is the “meal in a pill”. It’s never going to happen of course. Although our daily nutrient needs could be concentrated into a pill, it can never supply enough energy for our bodies. We’re going to need bulky food, for as long as humans remain warm-blooded and must power a brain.

Some predictions have come and gone. For decades, predictions were made about reaching the moon and colonising it. It was unthinkable to the writers of the time that we might visit the moon a few times then stop going. The fax machine, too, was predicted then came and is about to disappear.

Many predictions extrapolate from what is already theoretically possible, and so in the 1960s there were predictions that our homes would soon feature microwave ovens and ultrasonic dishwashers. The microwave made it big time, but ultrasonic washers never made it beyond jewellry cleaning. In the early 1960s, people knew that every home would soon have a transistor radio, but it never occurred to them that everyone would soon have a digital watch.

Many paleofutures conveniently ignore the fact that the world of the future is also going to include the world of the past. In twenty years time you may have a self-driving car with a holographic dashboard, but you will be sharing the road with cars that have already been built today, and it will be another generation before the “grandmas” of the day will use these newfangled holographic things. Likewise, most of the buildings standing today are going to be around for decades if not centuries.

There’s growing interest in Paleofutures. Much of the activity revolves around the Paleo-future blog where Matt Novak has assembled the world’s largest collection of paleofutures. It’s a fascinating place to lose a few hours.

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  • eiffel says:

    Thanks for that, M.Simon. It illustrates my point that fusion is, and has always been, “perpetually ten or twenty years away”.

    (I edited your post to link directly to the video and the EMC2 site, because that’s where the details are. I hope that’s OK.)

  • M. Simon says:

    You are missing out on all the technical resources and links that cover way more of the theory and practice on my blog plus primers on fusion physics. But – whatever.

    Dr. Nebel says we will know in 18 to 24 months if the Polywell approach can work. His mention of that is on my blog as well. Plus I provide links to Talk Polywell – the premier discussion board for Polywell Fusion home of lots of engineers and more than a few physicists. But you know – whatever.

    I’d say that IF (and that is a big IF but no show stoppers so far) it works it will be quite a bit closer than 20 years. Probably more like 8 or 10 years before the first Polywell is feeding the grid. About 4 to 6 years to a net power machine.

    And you can read all about it at the “IEC Fusion Technology” blog. Just Google it. It comes up at the top.

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