CNN carried an interesting story this morning called Why our ‘amazing’ science fiction future fizzled. The article recaps some of the stereotypical inventions of the future that have failed to take off, including flying cars, rocket belts, and moving sidewalks.
At the root of the problem is the disparity between our ability to define new technologies and our inability to foresee the consequences of those technologies. For example, it was easy to draw Buck Rogers shooting around the sky in a rocket belt but not so easy to see that a real human would need expensive, dangerous fuel to power such a belt, that globs of humans in the skies might result in chaos, and that flying itself can be dangerous.
Not to mention all the bugs you’d have to eat (depriving birds and bats of their tastiest meals).
Star Trek fans know we have built some of the interesting gadgets used in the television shows and movies. We have simple tricorders (for geologists), medical vital signs monitors, almost painless medicinal delivery systems, and cell phones. We can also “transport” photons from side of a room to another in the blink of an eye.
But we don’t have warp engines (which, technically, the Star Trek canon says we won’t develop for another 40 years). You know, some scientists now suggest that something like warp drive might actually be possible.
But what are the consequences of developing warp technology? The book (and movie) Angels and Demons proposes that we might have to deal with some serious political and criminal fallout if we manage to encapsulate anti-matter. A recent television documentary about the movie revealed that CERN scientists really can and do capture antimatter like in the movie — but not in quantities vast enough to destroy small cities.
Still, if we create an anti-matter energy economy — which interstellar travel might require, as Star Trek proposes — we’ll probably have to worry about terrorists getting their hands on more than just nuclear weapons and biological warfare samples. We’ll also have to figure out what to do with unstable anti-matter containers and how to protect our anti-matter energy workers from being annihilated. Perhaps we could build more robots to take on those dangerous tasks and hope no one hacks them into stealing the stuff.
I think the real reason why we do such a poor job of predicting the consequences of our new technologies is that we don’t take the time to extrapolate what might happen if we mass produce these nifty gadgets. We’re basically optimistic about any improvements in our science and technology. We’re trying to build a better future.
But is the future really better if it threatens to kill us all?
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