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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