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Where's My Gyrocopter?

Jay Vollmar

Did you fly to work today using your personal jet pack after swallowing your breakfast pellets? Did you choose the option on your computer that changes the color of your living room walls to a warm summertime yellow? Just a few decades ago, those and other daily routines were predicted for life on the threshold of the millennium.

Not since George Orwell's 1984 -- and certainly ever since Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (or at least Stanley Kubrick's film version of the novel) -- has a year held such mythic meaning. With the Y2K hysteria behind us, the real turn of the century is happening without any extra fanfare, slipping us into the third millennium gracefully, although perhaps lacking the image we've collectively held in the past.

Over the last fifty years, speculation has abounded -- particularly among Americans -- of a perfect modern world under their control. They believed in science and technology: that nuclear energy would make electricity too cheap to meter, that rockets would protect us from alien forces, that robots would do our dirty work, and that leisure time would increase.

Since the industrial era began, technology and commerce have fed a vision of tomorrow based on innovations of the day. Utopian novels such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1889) imagined colossal public buildings in stately piles: sky-bound steel, stone and glass marking an uplifting of spirit. Modeled after Manhattan, the high-rise towers enjoyed a web of walkways connecting the buildings, with hovercrafts zooming by at various speeds.

World Expos in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Paris and San Francisco over the last century gave us examples of what our life would look like in years ahead -- and Disneyland let us ride to Tomorrowland. Nearly forty years ago, Seattle was home to its share of crystal-ball-gazing at a World's Fair called "Century 21 Exposition." The block-long Hall of Industry there highlighted a number of "way-out" exhibits of future developments, from home environments to space-age wonders. The Rohr Aircraft display included a satellite-tracking station as well as supersonic transport -- which did materialize just over a decade later with the Concorde, created by the British and French. And United Airlines foresaw an electronic reservations machine for booking ticketless travel.

Ford Motor's exhibit showed the train of tomorrow, Levetrain -- a high-speed, electronically controlled railway with vehicles moving on air from 200 to 500 miles per hour, much like Japan's bullet train today. Though predictions at that time claimed that wheel-less super-speed rail systems would be a fantastic alternative to car travel, it hasn't caught on, and congestion mounts. What was then known as the "monorail transport device" remains a Seattle tourist attraction consisting of a short jaunt from downtown to the Space Needle.

Many things predicted for the future, however, haven't come true and aren't anywhere close to hovering on the horizon. Some of the biggest prospects proposed at the World's Fair were moving sidewalks, jetports and General Motors' automated highways (first written about by Robert Heinlein in 1940), in which the driver becomes the passenger on magnetic lanes attached to cars that maintain traffic flow. Yet our attachment to autos has made mass transit less appealing than rush-hour jams in hermetically sealed individual vehicles. Another bust was the Monte-Copter Triphiban, a jet-helicopter for an executive's personal air transport from home to office -- for use on land, sea and air. "Dealerships now available," the 1962 ad copy read.

Shorter work weeks were forecast, thanks to automation. With a larger labor force enjoying a longer life span, leisure time would supposedly increase, too. But paperless offices made possible by computers haven't unfolded, either; according to Predicting the Future, by John Malone, it's easier to print out multiple revisions of documents.

At that same fair, Standard Oil suggested the imminent creation of weather-controlled domed cities, domed homes and domed desert farms, where temperature and light control would allow more crops to be produced for meeting world food needs. In this vision, weather could be modified to eliminate smog and crop damage. But in fact, while we have more mastery over crops today, world hunger persists.Prefab houses bolted together on residential lots could change color schemes coordinated to seasons and times. We were to enjoy round, spacious rooms with built-in vacuum systems to suck up dust; furniture made of foamed plastic; kitchens with solar ovens; and disposable dishes that were ground up in the trash. Sadly, only the Jetsons got to feast on this fantasy. Other predictions showed a manned expedition to Mars, endless energy sources, and supercities built over huge metropolitan areas with growing populations. Futurists expected that education would emphasize the arts more -- giving us something to pursue during all of our extra free time. According to the Wall Street Journal's American Tomorrow, that concept presumed that government and foundation funding of the arts would continue to increase.

And then there are some ideas that may have been considered outrageous in their day but actually panned out. As long ago as 1863, Jules Verne envisaged the fax machine ("photographic telegraphy") in his novel Paris in the 20th Century. His manuscript, which was rediscovered in 1989, was originally rejected by a publisher as preposterous. Verne foretold horseless carriages, electric lights, automated trains and manned travel to the moon.

From the '62 World's Fair, various ideas have not only come true but now seem commonplace, even outdated. Bell Systems displayed push-button phones, which "may eventually replace the (rotary) dial phone," and a pocket-sized "Bell Boy" device using a seven-digit number to call, which sounds a lot like today's pagers; the company also predicted that cordless phones would allow calls to be made from cars and sidewalks. Imagine that.

General Electric boasted of its "unusual showing of products and ideas," such as a television projected on large wall surfaces, an electronic home library (CD-ROMS?) and, yes, a home computer for record-keeping, shopping and check-writing. Information was accessible at the touch of a button in the family den or community info center -- a precursor to the Internet. Well before e-mail arrived, office devices projecting micro-mail or "automatic transmission machines for correspondence" were anticipated. The desk was expected to be a computer center that analyzed data and flashed business records at a moment's notice. Executives would work at home, and women would join the workforce, too. Wow.

A special edition of 1962's Encyclopedia Americana illustrated several upcoming notions, including "waste converted to useful products" (recycling); communication satellites that relayed TV, phone and radio signals; a "quick heating device" similar to the microwave oven; hydrofoils that crossed the English Channel; increased demands for adult education; and libraries that boasted shelves of microfilm and tape recordings. What next?

There may be time for some predictions to still come true this year. We watched an automated battlefield on CNN during the Gulf War, but will it be the end of ground war? We're hanging around space stations, but how about day trips to the moon? We might pop supplements and drink meals, but eat a completely nutritious dinner in a pill? And become "sedentary pixels, nomadic spirits, islands in space and time," as the authors of The History of the Future suggest? Is the next frontier an internal journey, or will techno-opportunity further fuel our perception of destiny?

In The Road Ahead, Bill Gates wrote of a PC wallet, a Dick Tracy wristwatch for digital cash exchanges. He also posited that the Internet would serve as a medium for book writers. The Web develops daily, despite the dotcom shakeouts. E-commerce continues to amp up, although it hasn't come close to eliminating face-to-face retail transactions.

"Electronics continues to reduce drudgery," promised futuristic fairs of past decades, allowing people to pursue creative endeavors. We wish: Technology has accelerated the pace of our lives, simply giving us more time to get more things done. On the brink of the third millennium, the Information Superhighway threatens to send computers crashing on that very path while the vestiges of the industrial era's machines disintegrate.

It's become a cliche to say that we disconnect from people as we hook up to wires, digital links and satellites in order to communicate more quickly with the global community. As the world grows closer, it looks less familiar. As much as developments may improve our lives, it's harder to keep up with progress; as a result, the simplicity movement flourishes as it advocates a return to old-fashioned lifestyles. Our preoccupation with things vintage connects us to the past as we beam up to the 21st century.

Fascination with the future appeared to wane by the early '70s, overwhelmed by the pressing, and very real, social issues of race and war. Now, though, the fascination is back -- perhaps because the future is here.

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