Whatever happened to those fabulous techie dreams?
With Apple's new iPad set to create a frenzy, we ask. . .
Published 28/01/2010 | 05:00
The launch yesterday of Apple's new iPad -- the all-singing, all-dancing gizmo that's expected to change computing forever -- has led many people to claim that we're finally catching up with the visions of the future laid out in science fiction.
Yet the shameful truth is that the modern world has been a letdown. If you grew up in the 1950s, by 2010 you would have expected to see bases on the moon and a robot in every house. As recently as the 1980s, we were told to expect flying cars and hoverboards by now. And what do we have? Touchscreen mobile phones and Wikipedia. It's not what we signed up for.
So, in the absence of jetpacks -- or even an old-fashioned post-apocalyptic dystopia -- it's time to hold people to account. What were we promised? When were we promised it by? Who are the liars who got our hopes up?
A totalitarian new world order
Where Nineteen Eighty-Four
Who George Orwell
We suspect that a lot of people will be thinking Orwell was largely spot-on in his prediction of a world where personal freedoms are trampled and our every move is recorded on camera; we leave that judgment to you. But what Orwell got wrong was the idea of an all-powerful government that controls every facet of its subjects' lives. Instead, we have governments that can't even control their own ministers. It's comforting, in a way.
Androids indistinguishable from human beings
Where Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Who Philip K Dick
The robots in Dick's novel, loosely adapted by Ridley Scott into the film Blade Runner, were so similar to humans that when they went rogue, trained bounty hunters were called in to perform psychological tests to see whether suspected androids lacked human empathy. Yet the nearest thing available today is "the world's first sex robot", the profoundly creepy Roxxxy, which went on sale this year.
Who Peter Hyams
In an audacious move, the film Timecop -- a vehicle for the arguable talents of Jean-Claude Van Damme -- said time travel would take place in the year that it was released. It was wrong.
Where Demolition Man
Who Marco Brambilla
We should qualify this: cryogenic freezing that actually works. Rich Americans have been freezing themselves for years in the hope that science will discover the secrets of immortality -- it is widely, and falsely, rumoured that Walt Disney's head has been kept in a Californian chiller cabinet since his death in 1966.
Unfortunately, the technology to bring them back to life is nowhere to be seen.
So when Sylvester Stallone's maverick cop is incarcerated in a "CryoPrison" in a dystopic 1996, we can safely say they've jumped the gun.
Although there's still time for a non-violent, Utopian society to develop by 2032, when Stallone's character is defrosted, we have to be suspicious of the predictive powers of a film whose homicidal arch-criminal glories in the name of Simon.
War with the machines
Where Terminator 2
Who James Cameron
"Skynet began to learn at a geometric rate," intones Sarah Connor portentously.
"It became self-aware on August 29, 1997."
This from a film that was made in 1991. They weren't completely off the mark; in 1997, a computer did beat humanity in a battle that gripped the world.
Fortunately, that computer was IBM's Deep Blue; humanity was represented by Garry Kasparov; and the battle took place on a chessboard.
Where I, Robot
Who Isaac Asimov
Not the appalling 2004 film starring Will Smith, which danced merrily over Asimov's grave by cannibalising one of the author's greatest works for exactly the sort of sub-Faustian morality tale he despised. This was his original 1949 short story collection; specifically the first story, Robbie.
Powered by a "positronic brain", Robbie is a robot nursemaid, confidant and friend to a child called Grace.
In real-life 1998, robots were still largely limited to spray-painting Ford Mondeos. However, in an interesting twist, robot carers for the elderly are sometimes used in Japan, preparing food and carrying out domestic tasks. We doubt, however, that they're especially cuddly.
Where Make Room! Make Room!
Who Harry Harrison
The novel that inspired the film Soylent Green, Harrison's story, written in 1966, suggested that Earth's rapidly increasing population would force us into a horrible necessity: eating each other, both to provide food and to keep the population down.
That has not materialised, but the reality is almost as unpalatable: an explosion of smug cooking programmes patronisingly explain how to feed your children on polenta and curly kale for less than €5 a day.
Manned interplanetary flight
Where 2001: A Space Odyssey
Who Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick
The 1968 film and novel made many bold predictions: homicidal computers, bases on the moon, suspended animation, video phones (they got that one right, sort of, although they've never been all that popular).
Chief among them was the idea of frequent, easy space flights, with "MoonBuses" regularly shipping people to our lunar satellite, and oddly dressed space-hostesses serving drinks on a rotating space station.
The trip to Jupiter (or Saturn in the novel) on which the plot centres is seen as more of an event, but still comfortably within the technology of the time.
In the real world, a mere nine years after Clarke and Kubrick's deadline, Richard Branson reckons he'll soon be able to take a few super-rich thrill-seekers briefly into a low orbit for several hundred thousand pounds a time, while Nasa seems to be quietly shelving plans to send astronauts to Mars. Nearly right, then.
Discovering alien life
Where 2010: Odyssey 2
Who Arthur C Clarke
Nine years after the events of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a second trip to the outer planets finds alien life in the oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and gaseous beings in the clouds of Jupiter itself.
Apart from the fact that no one is likely to be going near Jupiter any time soon, this is not too unreasonable.
Europa is considered by astrobiologists the most likely candidate for extraterrestrial life of any world in our solar system, due to its liquid water and geothermal activity.
The next bit of the novel, where Jupiter collapses and forms a second sun, is probably less likely.
Still, there's another 11 months left before we can fully rule it out.
Where Back to the Future II and III
Who Robert Zemeckis
According to the Back to the Future series, the inarticulate youth of the future will be hurtling across the nation's car parks a foot above the ground, using anti-gravity skateboards. A generation of children grew up wanting one in their Christmas stocking.
What they got instead was a series of disappointingly "futuristic" toys such as Tamagotchi or Robosapiens.
Unless someone working for Mattel invents anti-gravity in the next five years, Zemeckis will be blamed for single-handedly ruining Christmas for kids worldwide.
Deadly game shows
Where The Running Man
Who Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Say what you like about the decline of television: whatever Jonathan Ross has done recently, it's not as bad as The Running Man, the mercifully fictional government-sanctioned game show in which political prisoners are chased by deadly hitmen through a ruined America for the diversion of its enslaved populace.
Although it was made into a camp film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which looked like a no-holds-barred version of Gladiators, the original novel was a darker, sadder affair.
However, real life has singularly failed to keep up, despite the valiant efforts of Endemol and Channel 4.