Worldbuilding: flying cars, the end of cinema, and other predictions

I’ve been ripped off. I was meant to have a flying car by now. Where is it? They’re not hard to make…are they?

Well, kind of. You end up driving a mediocre car hampered by aircraft parts, towing its wings. Or flying a mediocre aircraft lugging the stuff it needs for road driving around in the air. Joined by 50,000 other pilot/drivers with 37 flying hours between them. Air Traffic Control has conniptions.

What about meals by pill, then? Around the turn of the twentieth century, the discovery that you could pack your daily vitamins and minerals into a few tablets offered a convenient future. By the 1920s it was axiomatic that by, oh, maybe 1983, dinner would be delivered as a handful of pills. Glug down your three-course dinner with a glass of water. Except for one problem. They couldn’t contain the calories and bulk. Doctors and dieticians pointed that out at the time. I discovered it myself when I ate emergency rations on board HMS Invincible in 1983. Glucose sweets. Not filling. But the trope’s stuck. I’ll have extra topping on my cheesecake capsule, thanks.

The Roxy cinema lobby, Miramar, Wellington – the whole facility restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

There’s a lesson here for SF writers intending to build their own story worlds. My favourite future-prediction clanger is The Death Of The Cinema.  This was thought inevitable in the 1950s when TV appeared. Cinema survived. The next apocalypse was home VCR in the late 1970s. Then DVD. Today it’s home entertainment systems and streaming pay-to-view downloads, I am told.

Anybody coming to Wellington, New Zealand had better check out the Roxy Cinema in Miramar, literally just down the road from Peter Jackson’s vast movie-making empire. Quick. Before it disappears into The Inevitable Future.

And what about the Paperless Office and Cashless Society – neither of which seem likely soon. Check out this recent graph of US currency in circulation. It’s climbing. But the belief that the Cashless Society is inevitable persists – apparently it’s because we haven’t waited long enough. Get with the program.

The reason why these predictions fail is because the popular view of how society changes is framed by social Darwinistic notions of new replacing old automatically – of inevitable, directional progress, sometimes defined by a transient product or sales gimmick that seizes popular imagination.

The real world is more chaotic. Inventions sometimes re-define us, sure - but from left field. We were meant to have manned Mars rockets and megalopolis cities with aerial motorways by now. Nobody predicted how the internet and hand-held computers would re-define life instead. Except Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who devised the communications satellite in 1945. In 1964, he outlined the way cheap mass communication would change society. Then, ten years later, he absolutely nailed the internet and its social effects, in specific detail. Remember, in 1974 the world wide web and desktop PC hadn’t been invented. Be humbled. Oh – he also precisely described the functionality of the iPad. In 1968.

Clarke told us how things really work when it comes to societies changing in the face of inventions.

Which brings me to the next prediction. We’re in the middle of a digital book revolution. I’m prepared to bet we’ll still have print books in a century. They’ll adapt and remain alongside the other ways we read things. What do you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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8 comments on “Worldbuilding: flying cars, the end of cinema, and other predictions

  1. ljclayton says:

    I’m not sure about books surviving digital. I’ve a feeling they’ll become as obsolete as typewriters.

    • I suspect the mass market books will vanish. Pictorials and coffee-table books? Not so sure. We’ll see.

      I still have two typewriters! Haven’t used either for years. The IBM Selectric has a broken cable and the Adler Gabrielle’s ribbon dried out. Can’t get another.

  2. Bev Robitai says:

    I’m pretty sure books will survive quite happily. The mass-market ones will be cheap to print and distribute on the spot, and the luxury coffee-table items will be even more valued as pieces of art. With all the technological change it’s easy to forget that we are still dealing with basic human users with two eyes, two hands, and a need for entertainment. Kindles and ereaders don’t replace all the enjoyment of physical books – they transmit the words perfectly well but not the visual and tactile satisfaction. They are not hugely better at their job the way that computers are way better than typewriters. Can you imagine going back to using a typewriter to tackle a whole book? Utterly unthinkable!

    • It was way harder to edit text – double-spaced and pen-and-ink was the way, I recall. And after a while it meant typing out a new clean copy. I do wonder, though, whether the writing styles of the mid twentieth century reflected that.

  3. mattymillard says:

    I hope that print books stay around, I personally much prefer them to electronic! From my desk in the office, I also cant imagine paperless any time soon! It is quite interesting how predictions for the future go so wrong, although don’t flying cars exist, they’re just too expensive for the mass market at the moment! Incidentally, I’m not looking forward to being reversed into in a flying car…

    SF writers – my way of getting round the problem of false predictions is through humour. There are bits in my book which are tongue in cheek predictions, and in my other writing (such as my Olympics satire) which are entirely based on things which could happen – but exaggerated. Humour makes unbelievable things believable. I believe.

    Nice topic :-)

    • I agree. The funny thing (as it were) is that as far as I can tell the humour often seems to be the way things go for real. Good. Yet – sort of – not so good, all at the same time.

  4. naimeless says:

    I think you’re quite right about books surviving in print format.

    I watched a bunch of Arthur C. Clarke not that long ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d previously only read his books.

    The digital book revolution is sort of interesting to follow especially with regards to the use of social media and marketing. The indie publishing crowd sure has changed things too.

    • That’s the real revolution – the ability to self-publish. How that will change things isn’t yet clear – but I think the key will always be keeping the quality up.

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