THE FUTURE IS ALREADY HERE
Gibson’s point with his statement was that most inventions already have been made and that the most far-reaching changes already have happened; they just lack universal dissemination.
The future is “just not very evenly distributed” as he expressed it, Gibson is right. In many ways we live in a world that looks like or surpasses those that the last century’s science fiction writers dreamed of and which many science fiction novels and movies still shows us. Household robots, 3D holograms, flying cars and space tourism are no longer fantasy, but reality in line with a wide range of other examples we describe in this article, where we primarily look at technology and where we also focus on how popular culture has shaped our common understanding of the future.
Read about how inventions like Skype, xenotransplants, the atom bomb, happy pills, and genetic manipulation were described in literature long before they were realised by scientists and inventors; about how the movie2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 could show a tablet computer, and about what we yet have to see turned into reality.
The prophets of the 19th century
In particular Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946) were good at expanding on the technological trends of their time. Journeys to the Moon had been described long before Jules Verne wrote about it in From the Earth to the Moon from 1865, e.g. by Bishop Godwin in The Man in the Moone (sic) from 1638, but it is through Verne that the story of trips to the Moon found popular resonance. In the same spirit, Verne wrote about a very modern submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea from 1870. Before that, there had been numerous descriptions of submarines and several examples of constructed one-man submarines, but Verne’s description of the submarine Nautilus is very close to the image of submarines we have today.
In the same novel, Verne described a taser – a sort of electrical rifle that he called Leyden Balls. It fires small glass projectiles that break when they hit the target and are connected to a powerful handheld electrical power source that release a non-lethal charge. In the short story “In the Year 2889” (La journée d’un journaliste américain en 2889) from 1889, Verne also describes news that no longer is read, but ‘spoken’, as in a radio. In the same story he describes a sort of Skype: a Phonotelephote which, via a complex system of wires and mirrors, transmits images and sound over long distances.
Jules Verne accused his contemporary colleague H.G. Wells of inventing pseudotechnologies (including antigravity and time machines) instead of basing himself on real technology, but nonetheless Wells, like Verne, in his fiction managed to predict many things that we take for granted today. In his novel When the Sleeper Wakes, first published as a serial 1898-99, Wells describes a future where everybody lives in densely populated metropolises connected by international airlines and where they have both broadcast TV and video films – including porn movies! In his novel The War in the Air from 1905 he describes aerial bombardment of cities, and in The World Set Free from 1914 we have the first description ever of an atom bomb, more than thirty years before the Hiroshima bomb.
In H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau from 1896, the eponymous scientist uses advanced surgery to create man-animal hybrids. Such hybrids are now made through genetic engineering, where animals are given human genes e.g. to eventually make it possible to produce drugs or organs for people. The technology is called xenotransplantation, and genetically manipulated pigs are used in experiments in laboratories at the Meiji University in Japan. The scientists have created chimeric pigs that carry genes from two different species of pigs.
The scientists have managed to ‘grow’ a pancreas from a brown rat inside another rat species. In the wake of Verne’s and Wells’ many novels and short stories came several novels that also successfully predicted the future. In the Russian novel We from 1921, Yevgeny Zamayatin described a society where citizens living in glass houses are constantly watched by the state and where almost everybody fully accept this. In his novelBrave New World from 1932 wrote about helicopters for private citizens, the addictive drink Soma, which resembles today’s happy pills, and about the genetic manipulation of fetuses artificially conceived in test tubes. Huxley also wrote about ubiquitous chemical contraception for women, necessary because the novel takes place in a very sexually liberated society without marriage or nuclear families.
With his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published 1949, George Orwell has popularised the concept of a surveillance society and has named it: Big Brother. The citizens in Nineteen Eighty-Four are constantly watched by CCTV-style surveillance cameras on the streets and in their own homes through screens that cannot be switched off. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the home screens are two-way screens. Today we have webcams that often are switched on, and many rarely turn off the home computer during the day. The possibility of constant surveillance of people is no longer a frightening vision of the future; it is reality.
Today we have face recognition software that is used for surveillance, among other things, and the company Tobii, which makes 3D television sets, is working on a technology that tracks what the viewer is looking at. In a similar manner, Microsoft’s game console Xbox Kinect reads body language and may be developed further to read what people feel. What Orwell didn’t foresee was that today, not only the state watches the citizenry’s internet habits; big companies like Facebook and Google also do it. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, everything that consumers buy is registered. This is very much like how modern shopping behaviour is registered by private companies through credit cards where the users’ data are stored, and how internet shops plant cookies, often without asking.