A light and lively survey of dated visions of the future that show the futility of futuristic stargazing, followed by the author’s upbeat presumptions for the coming century.
You don’t have to play the stock market, or change your last name to Nostradamus or Popcorn, to suffer embarrassment when your hopes and fears simply don’t happen. Margolis, a British journalist who previously wrote biographies of Monty Python comics (Cleese Encounters, 1992, etc.), first quotes everyone from Shakespeare to Stephen Hawking on the pointlessness of futurology (the study of possibilities based on current information), and then takes a great leap backward, examining in brief, breathless paragraphs some prior visions that veered from pie-in-sky utopian optimism (an obscure 17th-century tract about life in the realm of an imagined King George VI expected vastly efficient canals to link the far-flung English colonies) to down-in-the-dumps doom (the apocalyptic limits-to-growth pundits of the 1970s posited that the world would run out of oil and other natural resources by the end of the 1980s). Even those who got some things right failed to foresee even half of the picture, as in the case of science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, whose prediction of a communications satellite network did come to pass, though the diabolical computer and interplanetary spaceships of his 1969 film 2001 have yet to arrive. Viewed historically, so much failed expectation reveals less about the future than it does about those who dream of it: technologists (with a few exceptions), imagining mile-high skyscrapers and flying cars, tend to be ridiculously optimistic; while environmentalists, especially those hawking various catastrophes from exploding volcanoes to global warming, are thoroughly pessimistic. Margolis concludes with his own comfortably cheerful predictions about the beneficial effects of genetic engineering, the Internet, and American suburban lifestyle. They should keep the pundits busy until he’s proven wrong.
Shallow and glib: Margolis’s future will not only be better than we can imagine, but better than he can imagine.