The Future We Wanted vs. The Future We Got

Sure, we have some nice gadgets, but most of our old ambitious dreams of the future are still nowhere close to reality. Here we track the course of some of some of the biggest unrealized hopes: We wanted weather control, we got weather out of control; wanted flying cars and jetpacks, got airport agony & SUVs; wanted an end to infectious disease, got new pandemics bubbling all over; etc.

By Wendy Marston|Monday, January 17, 2011

What We Wanted

What We Got

The Male Birth Control Pill 

The “other” Pill is perpetually five years in the future, which is baffling since the penis and its associated bits seem to be the more directly available human genitalia. But it turns out to be tougher to shut down sperm production—there are so many, and they move so quickly—than to derail just one big egg every 28 days or so. 

Thomas Beatie, a transgender person, was the first “pregnant man.” He gave birth vaginally (no C-section for him!) in 2008 to baby Susan. An exclusively male person would have had a much more difficult delivery, having no uterus or cervix or vagina. Stashing a growing embryo in a man’s body is a problem not yet solved 

Male Pregnancy 

Weather Control 

From planning an outdoor wedding to ending droughts and floods, the appeal is obvious. A sprinkling of precipitation powder on wispy clouds, and poof: A hard rain is gonna fall. Or perhaps giant fans mounted on blimps could blow clouds away when too much rain has fallen. 

We did manage to affect the weather, after all. Yay us! No, no yay. We spewed so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and denuded so much of the planet’s greenery that we succeeded in warming everything up to an even more chaotic and less predictable state. 

Weather Out of Control 

The End of Infectious Diseases 

By now we are supposed to be living disease-free, worrying only about wrist phone reception, really understanding Immanuel Kant, and getting our clone into the right preschool. We have vaccines, we have antibiotics, we knocked out polio. Clearly we have the upper hand. 

Pathogens proved much tougher than we realized. We have seen new outbreaks of swine flu, regular flu, hantavirusEbola, HIV/AIDS, herpes, HPV, meningococcal meningitis, SARS, West Nile virus, and MRSA—one of the notorious “flesh-eating bacteria.” Not to mention the reemergence of whooping cough, tuberculosis, and diphtheria. 

Infectious Diseases 

Hover Cars and Jet Packs 

Flying cars, multiple levels of swooping traffic, and parking spaces among the fluffy clouds: Our destiny is to live like the Jetsons. 

Cars seem more earthbound than ever. Before oil prices soared in 2008, massive pavement-pounders were the personal vehicles of choice. Economic changes and new financial regulations are bringing in smaller vehicles and hybrids, but concepts like the Terrafugia flying car largely remain...concepts. 


Contact with Alien Civilizations 

Even Carl Sagan dabbled in this fantasy. If the universe is full of habitable planets, and planets tend to produce life, and life tends toward intelligence, and smart aliens want to talk—well, surely we just have to learn how to be good listeners. 

Congress cut off funding to listen for radio signals from extraterrestrials in 1993, and these days much of the research is supported at the whim of Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft. True believers are still all “Hey, universe, I’m listening! If you don’t call me by Wednesday I’ll have made other plans.” But so far the universe has proven emotionally unavailable. 

Radio Silence 


Today I commuted to work in a slithery silver thing in a subway. Bummer. But tomorrow a transporter will take apart all my particles, turn them into information bits, shoot them along at the speed of light, and reassemble them at the destination of my choice, right? 

Air travel—the fastest kind we’ve got—is now a living hell, both far above the earth and in the airport on both ends. Shoes-off humiliation at security scans? Check. A $6 bag of chips and a movie no one would ever see in a theater? Check. Your bags? Don’t check, unless you want to deal with that baggage fee and wonder if it will show up at the other end. 

The Agony of Air Travel 

Humanoid Robots 

Star Wars’ C-3PO is the prototype of the helpful robot in the house. He cleans, cooks, fixes things, and makes us feel good about our social skills. I’ll take one in silver. 

Robots may know how to paint cars, sort ball bearings, and work in a limited fashion in nursing homes and for obscenely rich people, but they are not yet in our houses (with the exception of the Roomba vacuum). Seems that doing the laundry and throwing shish kebab on the grill are far more complicated artificial-intelligence problems than we thought. 

Some Very Unfun Industrial Robots 

Endless Clean Power 

Maybe it will be fusion. Maybe it will be something even more fantastical, like zero-point energy. But something clean and abundant is going to fuel our fully automated houses, where we will stand on a little platform and be bathed, blown dry, clothed, fed, and dropped gently into our personal jet pack. And I haven’t even mentioned the space elevator to our summer home. 

The world still runs mostly on extracted energy sources. Coal is the largest and fastest-growing segment, powering much of China’s booming economy. In the meantime, we’ve had to clean up from ecological disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon blowout. (Meanwhile, the 1986 Chernobyl explosion put a chill in the nuclear alternative.) 

Expendable Fossil Fuels 

Cloning: The Creation of Mini-Me 

It’s you, but maybe better. This time around you will be sure not to let you read in the dark, skip sunscreen, or waste time on violin lessons. 

Financing is available so you can afford to inflate your breasts or pecs or to Botox your brows into an expressionless mask. If we can’t clone ourselves, we might as well remake ourselves in the image of the biggest jerk in high school. 

Plastic Surgery: The Creation of Barbie-Me 

A Theory of Everything 

Why deal with the messiness of two theories of physics—quantum mechanics and general relativity —that don’t get along with each other? Scientists have been hot on the trail of a single set of equations to explain the whole enchilada. Call it string theory, M theory, the theory of everything: This will be so good that it might even qualify as the long-anticipated End of Science. 

String theory turns out to have 10500 possible solutions. It might be fundamentally untestable. And for the layperson, it has mainly produced a lot of turgid documentaries. Talking heads, rarely identified, pop out of whatever membrane they usually inhabit and proclaim that flitty subatomic strings are the most important discovery since Einstein, but no one is entirely convinced. For the love of boffo box office, let’s get this sucker solved. 

An Understanding of Nothing 

Who Asked For That?

Cold Fusion and Other Failures

On March 23, 1989, B. Stanley Pons, a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, and his colleague, Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England, announced they had created fusion—the process that occurs inside the sun and a hydrogen bomb—in a jar of water at room temperature. Unfortunately, no one else could replicate their celebrated achievement. Others who were loose with their facts: former Harvard researcherJohn Darsee (faked cardiac research); radiologist Robert Slutsky (altered data; lied); obstetrician William McBride (changed data, ruined stellar reputation), and physicist J. Hendrik Schön (faked breakthroughs in molecular electronics)

Crumbling Infrastructure 

The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded our national infrastructure a grade of D in 2009, down a full letter since its first report in 1988. Cracks are everywhere, from aviation (D) to dams (D) to waste water (D–). Lack of maintenance, investment, and upgrades over decades has made our foundations increasingly fragile (hurricane Katrina is a handy case in point). Our health infrastructure is creaking as well: Food safeguards are lax and outdated, giving rise to outbreaks of E. coli involving everything from ground beef to cookie dough. 

NASA Grounded 

There is no American manned space effort anymore—the Space Shuttle program, inaugurated the year DISCOVER premiered, is about to wind down. Along the way 14 astronauts died on two missions (Challenger, 1986, and Columbia, 2003). Astronauts who visit the International Space Station, the high-price and low-profile structure currently orbiting Earth, will be ferried there for the next five years by the Russian reusable space capsule Soyuz. Apparently the Russians won the space race after all. 

Intelligent Design 

Not satisfied with the biblical God who created the world in six days, creationists developed a “science” that aims to explain the supernatural force behind the whole shebang: intelligent design. Because we cannot reverseengineer things like the human eye, they say, it follows that all must be designed by a higher being. (The human knee presumably came together during a moment of distraction.) This tactic had some success easing intelligent design/creationism into American public-school science lessons. But in 2005 a jury prohibited its teaching in the schools of Dover, Pennsylvania, delivering a stinging rebuke. 

Quants Run Amok 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” wrote novelist Upton Sinclair. Perhaps that is why the economic meltdown of 2008 came upon us so suddenly: We were all in that bubble economy together, including most of the macroeconomists and mathematicians who could have—should have—seen something coming. Many of those quantitative analysts, or “quants,” claimed to be importing a scientific mind-set to economics. Let’s hope the physicists are paying better attention 

Private Research Run Amok 

In 1965 more than 60 percent of R&D was funded by the federal government. By 2006, 65 percent was funded by the private sector. Good news in some ways—who doesn’t like less government spending?—but with private interests exerting that much pressure on research, the public will truly get what it pays for. For instance, pharmaceutical companies will most likely continue to generate more lucrative cures for hypertension and high cholesterol, even though existing drugs work well, and ignore other disorders that lack effective drugs. The blizzard of commercial medical information is especially unsettling at moments of crisis when doctors ask questions—”Which experimental breast cancer therapy would you like to explore?”—that we are ill equipped to answer. 

Full Exposure 

It’s not just that the Internet gives almost complete access to information—from images of your house from space to your neighbor’s mortgage amounts—with almost no work. It’s also that the information never goes away. (Due to the power of Facebook, that image of your coworker covered in salsa at Señor Frog’s in 1992 can now haunt you—and him—for the rest of your life.) Meanwhile, robot cameras issue traffic tickets, antiterror agencies test the boundaries of constitutional freedom, and people willingly give out their Social Security number to get discountpurchase cards at the supermarket. At least restrooms are still private. For now. 

Wendy Marston is a freelance writer and editor and the author of
The Hypochondriac’s Handbook. She was formerly a senior editor at DISCOVER.

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