As a child, I would sit down in front of the television every Thursday evening and wait with impatience for Nationwide to finish. Why? Because the best show in the world started directly after: Tomorrow’s World. For those too young, forgetful or foreign to remember it, Tomorrow’s World was a live programme broadcast on the BBC for nearly 40 years, from 1965 until its cancellation in 2003. A sad day indeed.
The premise of the show was simple – it was to explore and report on scientific and technological advances. It introduced the world to mobile phones (as far back as 1977), the Channel Tunnel (1972) and even online shopping (1979). Because it was live, exciting developments (usually involving robots) often went wrong, but this was ok. It gave the show a feeling of cutting-edge experimentation.
As a small child, born in 1975, Tomorrow’s World gave me my first glimpses of a marvellous future, full of silver jumpsuits, personal jet-packs and robotic butlers.
I followed up my early fascination with science by delving into science fiction, notably the British comic institution of 2000AD, which celebrates its 35th birthday this week. 2000AD is an anthology of serialised comic strips, most famously Judge Dredd, and has kickstarted the careers and showcased the talents of some of the biggest names in fandom: Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman.
In the 1980s, the year 2000 seemed an age away, so why shouldn’t the world change dramatically by then? After all, if the pace of technological advancement in the post-WWII years continued, we could reasonably expect to be living in a Sci-Fi utopia within a couple of decades.
As you have no doubt not failed to realise, none of this has happened. The world we live in is not really much different from the one we lived in thirty years ago. Yes, we have the internet, smartphones, cable TV. Healthcare is still improving and life expectancy slowly rising. Advances in astronomy allow us to view the birth and death of stars, or understand the atmosphere of a distant planet. But essentially life is pretty much the same, isn’t it? You know, for the ordinary, run-of-the-mill, person on the street? We don’t have robot servants (except in the industrial machinery sense – and all they have done is put thousands of people out of work). We don’t have cars that drive themselves (despite several prototypes having been developed). We certainly don’t have personal jet-packs or even flying cars (although given the death toll on our motorways this may actually be a good thing). We all thought that we were on the verge of a wonderful new era of science and technology enhancing our lives, and yet we’re still stuck with the same old problems.
On Star Trek, Kirk shared his bridge with a black woman, a Russian, a Japanese-American and an alien. In 2012 we still live with racial intolerance.
In countless science fiction shows, electric cars whizzed noiselessly past, seamlessly merging with serenely moving traffic.
The internal combustion engine has been knocking around in various forms for well over two centuries and in that time has developed from barely contained explosions to the largely inefficient, multi-cylinder, gas-guzzling monstrosities that we know and love, although the last real breakthrough was in 1954 with the development of the Wankel Rotary Engine (stop sniggering at the back!). We are still reliant on fossil fuels that are expensive, ecologically devastating, the cause of war and financial ruin. Electric and hybrid cars are slowly gaining a tiny market share, but the performance is pretty poor and charging times unrealistic.
So what happened? Why did technology change its focus? It went from promising everything to delivering…beta testing. Computers run our lives and, while this has obvious benefits (porn has never been more readily available for a start), who can truly say that they have never been tempted to hurl a computer through a window and begin a bloody vendetta against Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs? Who has never heard the phrase ‘paperless office’ without suppressing (or releasing) a bitter laugh? Who has never ground their teeth to a fine paste as an important document disappears into the electronic ether, never to return?
I am not a scientist. This may come as a shock to some of you, but it’s true. I also have very little clue about the inner workings of a computer, either hardware or software. I can operate a motor vehicle, inserting fuel, oil and water when necessary. I can even perform simple tasks like changing a tyre, or replacing spark plugs. Beyond that level of competency, I need to get someone else to do it. What I’m saying is this: I have no idea why we don’t live in Space 1999, but I suspect it has something to do with bureaucracy. In episode one of James May’s Big Ideas, the hairy pianist and geek explores the world of flying machines and concludes thus: If the idea for the car was proposed today, it would be rejected for being far too dangerous. A machine made of metal, fueled with an explosive liquid, capable of travelling at speeds in excess of 100mph, in the hands of anyone who could pass a simple test? Insanity! And they may be right. Over 2000 people a year die on the roads in England and Wales alone. How many more would die if their cars could get airborne? Ever run out of petrol? Ever run out of petrol at 15,000 feet?
While I am trying to inject a little humour into this article, I humbly suggest there is a serious point to all this. Our future, the future my generation was promised, has not come to pass. We have been let down by our predecessors and are now letting down our successors. We need to stop messing around, stop arguing, and start changing this world for the better before it is too late. We are killing this planet (not wanting to sound like a whiny eco-nut), and it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll be getting off it at any time soon. We need people with the skills to make a difference – engineers, scientists, visionaries. We don’t need another generation of disillusioned call centre workers, shop assistants, IT consultants.
How about this: We sit the leaders of the world around a big table and lock the room.
We then elect people who are sensible and able to see past their own legacy, or the end of their patriotic or religious noses. We elect people who actually give a shit about the future.
Otherwise, we may not have one.