Where did all the 21st century technology go?

Since we’re well into the 21st century, we should have at least some of the things that the fabled Popular Mechanics article promised us for the 21st century way back in 1950, shouldn’t we?

We have some, it’s true although in many cases they didn’t turn out to be as popular as you would have expected. The talking cars for instance have been and gone and, after several abortive starts, we have workable video phones now. However, in many respects we’ve gone back to basics as all the predicted plastic furniture and furnishings have largely been rejected in favour of natural products. Both the hovercraft and supersonic flight have both been consigned to history for the moment and those flying cars never came to pass, or at least not yet.

What about the predictions of the novels? Well, perhaps the most famous of those is 1984. We didn’t get the surveillance that was predicted by 1984 but we sure do now and all we’re missing is the totalitarian regime. Going back further to Brave New World from 1932 and we’re getting there on the designer baby front although the mood enhancing drugs have some way to go before they’d be accepted on a widespread basis by society.

Many predictions involved the use of automation would mean that adults would work only a few hours each week. Although you might laugh at that it actually has happened in the sense that many of the routine jobs of the 1930s and before are now automated: who would expect a person to copy documents by hand these days when there are photocopiers around? The problem is, of course, that we’ve started doing different jobs and ones that, so far, generally can’t be automated.

Some of the predictions seem silly to us now such as that from Julius Sextus Frontinus in AD10 that everything had already been invented and he saw no scope for further developments. In many ways he was right because the Roman Empire didn’t invent anything of consequence after that and it was over 1000 years before developments started moving beyond Roman hi-tech.

Of course we’re just on the leading edge of the 21st century and there’s much more to come. One thing that seems likely to cause a considerable impact on life in the future is the seemingly relentless increase in life expectancy. To put the figures into some context consider that in 1911 there were only 100 people over 100 years old whereas there are over 9,000 over 100 today. In fact the increase in lifespan is so significant that the pensions industry has been told to drop any assumptions they may have made about there being an upper limit on lifespan which is nice news if you’re planning on living forever but don’t forget that you’ll not be able to stop working at 65 and put your feet up!

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