It is a sign of the times that there is a tendency to view scientific advance in pessimistic rather than optimistic terms.
But it’s not long ago that popular attitudes were very different. At the crest of the optimistic wave was the weekly TV programme Tomorrow’s World. This show began in 1965, in a visionary era when moon landings were being planned, and it was broadcast in prime time on BBC1 rather than shunted into a late slot on BBC2. Tomorrow’s World showcased various scientific and technological innovations and, although not all its predictions were realised, it tended to keep its feet on the ground.
Elsewhere, though, some predictions owed more to science fiction than science and seem very silly in retrospect. There were confident forecasts that, by now, we would be wearing aluminium suits, eating all our food in the form of pills, and travelling around in flying cars or with a jet pack on our backs. The interesting thing is not that such innovations are unfeasible (the technology already exists), but that there is no demand for them.
The change in popular attitudes that occurred 30 to 40 years ago was not a complete rejection of science, more a desire to have one’s organic cake and eat it. People nowadays rush to buy the latest iPhone or Kindle while maintaining a sentimental yearning for an illusory lost idyll of back-to-the-land and knit-your-own-yoghurt.
Given today’s cynical and pessimistic climate, it is refreshing to see that Popular Mechanics has just published 110 Predictions For the Next 110 Years, a list of potential scientific and technological innovations. It is probable that some of these predictions will not come true. But at least someone is thinking positively.
One predicted innovation not on Popular Mechanics’s list is the Orgasmatron but, to be fair to Woody Allen, Sleeper was set 200 years in the future, not merely 110.