Lamenting the lost hopes of a past future

These days we live in the unimagined future – a twenty-first century of micro-tech miracles that only Arthur C. Clarke actually predicted.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.
On the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

We don’t have universal flying cars, or interplanetary passenger rockets, or moon bases, or any of the things we were supposed to. What we do have is even more wonderful – gadgetry that lets us communicate anywhere, with anyone. Phones with more computing grunt than NASA’s mainframes during the Apollo programme. The social impact is being felt in all fields of endeavour, not least of them the entertainment business.

And yet I cannot help lamenting the future we lost.

Does anybody remember the Six Million Dollar Man? Seventies sci-fi TV about an astronaut rebuilt with uber-tech after an air crash.  You knew when he was invoking his powers because he’d drop into slow-mo, backgrounded by annoying ‘bip-bip-bip’ noises and Oliver Nelson’s soundtrack (yes, that Oliver Nelson – the guy that wrote the best jazz album ever made, The Blues and the Abstract Truth…sigh….)

Wonderfully lampooned by Spike Milligan, and perhaps rightly so – the whole thing was, after all, very silly. Not least because you don’t just use legs and an arm to lift weights. (‘I’m sorry, Mr Austin, it’s not an extra bionic bit, it’s a hernia.”) The plots devolved to secret agent stuff, or plain silliness where the bionics became brute-force answers to problems that had simpler solutions. It hasn’t aged well.

Still, it summed up the optimism of the day. In 1973, when the pilot aired, humanity had just been to the Moon. Our future was a heroic, optimistic future of big engineering answers. Got an astronaut mangled in an accident? No problem – we can rebuild him. Things that worry us now didn’t enter into the calculation – I mean, the bionics were nuclear powered.

It’s this optimism – call it naïve, wide-eyed, sure – that we’ve lost. Swallowed by a wave of cynicism, cost realities, the collision between dreams and the immutable laws of physics.

Sure, today’s world of small-scale tech is wonderful. But I can’t help lamenting that lost age when we dreamed big and had every expectation that those dreams would come true. I lament it not because we missed out on those wonders – but because, when we found we couldn’t do them, we lost that sense of hope, too.

That’s what I miss. We need it. What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


12 thoughts on “Lamenting the lost hopes of a past future

  1. I begged my mother for a subscription to Popular Science magazine in the late 60`s. Time stood still as we held our breath in front of the black and white TV, each time a rocket blasted into space. The moon landing made anything seem possible. Cheesy episodes of Lost in Space replaced by Star Trek on the new colour TV. I believed flying cars a certainty, not just ideas. My reality of the future built on hyper drive, warp speed, robotics, and anti gravity. I didn`t see the nano chip coming. I couldn`t have imagined a world without pages to turn on books or the necessity of human contact.I didn`t foresee a world where instead of improving lives or solving problems, we poured our resources into higher resolution graphics to support frivolous apps on ever thinner devices aimed at making human contact obsolete.

    I miss the Bionic Woman and Six Million Dollar Man. I miss the once upon a time when we were`nt shackled to smart phones and tracked by cookies. I miss badly written plots, resolved in an hour by fantastic technology yet ultimately human innovation. Hell – I even miss MacGyver. I`m sure there must be a MacGyver app floating around somewhere.

    We seem to have forgotten so many possibilities. I still hang onto hope, I only wish my children could have experienced the world before text messaging and computer graphics. 🙂

    1. We’ve absolutely forgotten how we used to imagine, definitely. And that’s sad. Today’s expectations, inevitably, are framed by what we do (and can do) today – which makes me think that maybe our future won’t be what we imagine it might be, now, any more than today is what we imagined it might be, back then.

      I have to admit, I never watched much MacGyver…there ws the episode where he fixed a car’s failed brakes by going through the full brake-bleed process using an improvised hydraulic fluid, all the while careering down a hill out of control with his legs sticking out of the bonnet, without crashing. Hmmn…. 🙂

  2. #1 I thought The Bionic Man was a documentary!! #2 The best Jazz album ever made is Kinda Blue by Miles Davis (although The Blues and the Abstract Truth is pretty darn brilliant too) #3 I think our hopes for the future have changed but are still there – recession always brings pessimism to the fore. Read ‘Abundance’ by Peter Diamandis.

  3. This is a question that’s vexed me for some decades.

    When I was in grade school I took it for granted that we lived in the sort of world where, as a matter of course, almost, those hi-tech dreams would come true, and by the time I was 18, the Air Force Academy would have morphed into Space Academy (no Star Trek at that time) and I’d join Tom Corbett and his Space Cadet buddies out there in “the far-flung stars of space.”

    What I didn’t know was just how small a minority I belonged to.

    Recently I read that a relatively small proportion of the population of the US (can’t recall how small, something like a third) actually supported the space program. After we showed the Soviets up by beating them to the Moon almost all interest evaporated.

    Historically something very similar happened in aviation. I’ve never understood why the whole world didn’t beat a path to Orville and Wilbur’s door, clamoring to know how they did it, in early 1904. But it doesn’t seem anyone was that interested. “So what?” seemed to be the order of the day.

    And now, dang it, I have to go to work. It’s early AM on this side of the globe! But I’ll think about this some more. Good post, Matthew!

    1. I never got over how fast the Apollo project lost popular enthusiasm as soon as the first landing had happened – and, of course, the fiscal realities were biting even before they got to the Moon, I think it was 1968 that the Nixon administration slashed back NASA’s budgets for the post-Apollo era. I guess the sad reality is that it had less to do with the excitement of the unknown, the outward urge, as it did with domestic political realities and the perceptions of the Cold War.

      Yes, I think it was WWI before aviation got widespread and the 1920s before it was popularised. We had our own ‘air-minded’ folk here before WWI but they never reached the headlines – a paragraph or two in the local paper at best. One of the most vigorous local pioneers was working from my home town of Napier in 1907-08, but had huge difficulty getting any money, and nobody locally seemed to care very much. Kind of sad.

  4. I was a Bionic Woman fan. When I think back on it now, it wasn’t the Inspector Gadget type gadgetry that delighted me so much as the feeling that being a girl seemed to be (finally) filled with possibilities. Now that you ask, I realize that I haven’t lost that sense of hope. After all, we’ll always be grounded in the reality of our physical existence, but what that existence IS remains a definition always open to change.

    Thanks for reminding me of these old TV shows. They connect with a project I’m working on, where the metaphor doesn’t feel developed yet. Now I feel like I’ve received an important piece of the on-going puzzle of the story! 🙂

    1. Yes, that show was definitely leading the way in terms of presenting women in ways that, I guess, we tend to take for granted on TV but which were pioneering then. I never used to watch it myself; it did show on NZ TV eventually, but by the time it came along I was generally out-growing the genre – I lost interest in the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ and never watched any of its spin-offs. I did watch some of the re-boot ‘Bionic Woman’ episodes a few years ago, and very good they were too, I thought updated pretty well for the current mind-set and especially our changed attitudes to the human-machine relationship.

  5. I wouldn’t be so cynical. In the 1970s and 80s, the prevailing thinking was that we would all die in a nuclear war or conflict stemming from running out of oil or even starve in an ice age. For as long as I have been alive, every generation has lived in fear of the future, I think because constant change has made the future seem uncertain.

    1. Yes, there was that down side. The nuclear war especially, which seemed all too real in the early 1980s especially, as the Cold War revved up for its final spasm. Also true that climatologists predicted a further ice age. All framed, I think, by the same style of thinking that created the ‘optimistic big engineered’ future – in this case, its flip-side.

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