As a sci-fi fan and history geek, I hold the “what-could-have-been-the-future” genre near to my heart.
Okay, so I don’t feel all mushy like that. But I do find it incredibly fascinating.
It’s called the “paleofuture.” Essentially, it’s what the past (mainly the mid 20th century) thought the future would be like. This is where the concept of flying cars and Jetsons-esque buildings come from. The visual art and creative genius from writers and artists in this genre is priceless.
One of the most fascinating things about paleofuture art and film is that while the technology depicted was exotic and futuristic, the social values were the same. In the year 2000, we’ll have rockets to the moon, bases on Mars, mile-high skyscrapers…and only white (heterosexual) men will be able to enjoy the future’s full potential!
The Disney short Magic Highway USA is a classic example. This 1958 gem of ’50s optimism makes some interesting predictions for the 21st century, including fog resistant “expressways” and see-through freeway tunnels at the bottom of the world’s oceans.
Take a look:
Several things stand out. Aside from the large amounts of new and fantastic (and rather useless) technology, 1950s American society remains the same in this vividly pictured future. It seems that in 21st century America, children only exist in homes with a subservient mother and a bread-winning father. Father goes to work and mother and child go to the shopping center because, you know, women can’t run companies because they aren’t smart enough!
One can only imagine the environmental nightmares and global fuel shortages that would result from having personal gas pumps in the garages of average families, as is predicted in the short. It’s bad enough that almost all major cities are designed around the automobile and suburban sprawl. Now we’re supposed to have what appear to be unregulated gas stations in millions of American homes? What could possibly go wrong?!
Man has always fallen short when it comes to predicting the future. Just turn on the TV late at night and you’ll see poor saps calling (and paying) in to self-proclaimed psychics. Humans have large, complex brains so we like pondering our existence and future. It’s what we do.
Yes, we have come a long way and in fact surpassed many of the predictions of generations past. Had you told someone 50 or even 30 years ago that in the early 21st century, your entire music library, along with several movies and television shows, will be stored in a small, wireless, hand-held device, they would have either labeled you a science fiction visionary or a crazy communist or something. If you really wanted to up the ante, you could also tell them that in the near future, average people will communicate instantaneously across the world via video chat. More Valium for the nutjob!
Most futurists and visionaries of the past seemed to forget that societal attitudes and culture are fluid. Even the 1950s were more progressive than decades earlier when women in most parts of the United States could not even vote. Societies and cultures change and evolve. They have to in order to survive. Cultures that don’t change and adapt end up decaying and dying. We learn from our mistakes (although not all the time) and move onward. New discoveries in science and debates in philosophy challenge humanity’s past assumptions. It was only centuries ago that people with mental illness were diagnosed with demons. Mankind used to think gods and other supernatural beings were in the heavens when they looked up into the night sky and named the constellations.
As humanity has evolved, it has shed many of its previous superstitions and old habits. As we continue to evolve into a global civilization, the journey of discovery and reassessment of values also continue. We will become more technologically advanced and innovation will continue to open new horizons. However, our only real hope lies in adapting to new ways of thinking and doing things. Equality in the eyes of a democratic government and tolerance of different ways of life seem to be the wave of the future. We have no choice but to ride that wave.