How Previous Decades Predicted the Future: The 21st Century as Imagined in the 1900s, 1950s, 1980s, and Other Eras

All of us alive today perceive recent history as a series of decades. There exists, as far as we know, no quality of reality dictating that everything must recognizably change every ten years. But throughout the 21st century, it seems to have been thus: even if we weren’t alive at the time, we can tell at a glance the cultural artifacts of the nineteen-thirties from the nineteen-forties, for example, or those of the nineteen-eighties from the nineteen-nineties. Each decade has its own distinct fashions, which arose from its distinct worldview; that worldview arose from a vision of the future; and that vision of the future arose from changes in technology.

Back in the nineteen-tens, says history Youtuber Hochelaga in the video above, “the invention of the first airplane opened massive potential in transportation, and sparked the imagination of the public.” The development of aviation encouraged predictions that one day “the world would go airborne; people would take to the skies in their very own personal airships and gliders.” Popular artists dreamed of  a kind of “steampunk genre: a future vision and aesthetic, but stuck in victorian technologies like steam power and industrial machinery, as well as goggles and top hats.” By the twenties, this optimistic vision would be displaced by darker but more stylish ones, such as the Art-Deco dystopia of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

It was the nineteen-fifties, specifically the triumphant and abundant American nineteen-fifties, that introduced the idea that “the future will be one of convenience and luxury.” As the Space Race progressed, this notional world of picture-phones and flying cars evolved into the one of interstellar freeways, robot maids, and Googie architecture exemplified by The Jetsons. But as far as personal technology was concerned, the real world had seen nothing yet. The rapid popularization of the personal computer in the eighties brought with it a vast expansion of ideas of what computers could do. According to the Terminator films, we were supposed to have an artificially intelligent defense network that attained self-awareness by 1997 — though our having blown past the deadline is probably for the best.

Here in the twenty-first century — an impossibly distant future in most of the decades discussed here — very few elements of these futures have been fully realized. For that matter, few of the technologies we actually do use in our everyday lives were accurately predicted in the twentieth century. (Imagine how social media would have looked on a color postcard from 1915.) “Each present moment imagines a future with themselves clearly in it, taking advantage of the newest technology of the day to its furthest limits,” says Hochelaga. In other words, each of these decades regards the future as an extreme version of itself. In this view, how many of us today think of the future as dull, grim, and even nonexistent tells us nothing about what will actually happen in decades ahead. It does, however, tell us a great deal about the twenty-twenties.

Related content:

Jules Verne Accurately Predicts What the 20th Century Will Look Like in His Lost Novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863)

How French Artists in 1899 Envisioned Life in the Year 2000: Drawing the Future

In 1900, Ladies’ Home Journal Publishes 28 Predictions for the Year 2000

1930s Fashion Designers Predict How People Would Dress in the Year 2000

Arthur C. Clarke Predicts the Future in 1964 … and Kind of Nails It

Walter Cronkite Imagines the Home of the 21st Century … Back in 1967

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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