Robot servants, flying ships and mining on the moon – the future looked bright and fantastical in the eyes of 1980s futurists.
Fast forward 35 years, while many of the lofty dreams of floating schools and undersea cities remain out of reach – we came a lot closer to the future than than you may think.
In 1982, Random House New York published the Kids’ Whole Future Catalog by Paula Taylor – a book looking “far” into the future (2000 and beyond).
It contains a wide mix of predictions based on the understanding of science and technology at the time, and ventured to imagine how people would be communicating, living, eating and interacting in “the future”.
Chief among these predictions are those relating directly to technology – the advent of networked computers, communication technology that would make us accessible no matter where we are, and how computers would effectively run our lives.
Below we’ve found and read through how Future Catalog saw how tech would work in the “future” of the early 21st century – and how close they actually got.
The Internet of the future
“By simply typing a few words on your computer you’ll be able to find out almost anything you want to know. Before long, you’ll have all the information in the library available right in your home!”
By the 1980s, the Internet was already a thing, though it was not widely available and still largely limited to military and scientific pursuits. Computers were starting to network in LANs over ethernet, but it was only in 1985 that the first web domain was registered.
But even in 1982, people understood the great potential the Internet had for our every day lives, and extensive ‘information utilities’ were made available to individuals who owned a computer and were willing to pay a subscription.
In 2017, it’s safe to say the Internet has changed the world. It is how we communicate, shop, consume entertainment, get information, learn and even sometimes live separate, digital lives.
The death of the post-office
“By the year 2000, your local post office may have disappeared. The mail carrier may not stop at your house anymore. Don’t worry, you will still get letters, but they won’t appear in your mailbox. They’ll be sent electronically through a telephone system instead, and will displayed on a computer terminal or television screen.”
While the post office is still very much a thing in 2017, it’s no longer the primary mode of communicating with other people – email has taken that spot, and instant messaging and social media have filled whatever gaps email did not.
We still rely on postal services for bills and deliveries, but even these are increasingly being dealt with electronically, and by private firms (Amazon, for example).
“It won’t be long before you will be able to call anyone from your own wrist radio. Each wrist radio will have its own private number, just like a telephone. You will push buttons to dial and talk through a tiny microspeaker.”
We have smartwatches today that could fit the bill for what the Future Catalog predicted, but it’s mobile phones which really took on the role described.
Mobile phones were in their infancy in the early 80s, so the idea of having the smartphones we have today was probably a major stretch for the imagination. While wrist communicators never really picked up, phones got smaller, lighter and more accessible.
Future Catalogue also expected the wrist communicator to come cheap – around $10 (around $25 today). You can certainly find feature phones that go for that price, but high-end devices are closer to $500 today.
TV on-demand (and big screens)
“With a flip of a dial, you will be able to choose among 60 or more TV channels.”
Future Catalog saw the TV room being the center for all family activity in the home of the future, with 6-foot screens, computer access for ‘web browsing’ and even a gaming console for the kids.
The TV room of today is not all that different – though we’ve managed to put all the different devices into one smart TV. A 72 inch screen (and even bigger) is definitely a reality – and smart TVs can browse the web. Console gaming is also a reality, while services like Netflix offer hundreds of options for viewing pleasure.
A house run by a computer
Future Catalog envisioned a future where a computer (named ‘Breslin’) would assume control of the running of a household. Breslin is described as “a person inside a little box” that actually talks to the people of the house.
He lets them know when the coffee is ready, if the grass needs watering, if that baby’s crying, or even if there is a fire or a security breach. He has full control of the appliances, and can operate the dishwasher or the washing machine – or adjust the thermostat to make sure the house is at the right temperature.
He can turn on the lights at night, and turn them off in the morning – and then he schedules the daily activities for the day, or the week.
If Breslin sounds familiar, it’s because the world of 2017 is no stranger to many of these little luxuries. From home automation to ‘personal assistants’ like Siri, we are relying on computers and devices to keep track of our lives and the running of our homes.
This prediction lines up most with that buzzword corporates like to punt – “The Internet of Things”. Instead of one ‘Breslin’ device in our homes running the show, however, we have many devices which all communicate with each other over the net.
“Today, kids are just beginning to learn how to program computers in school. But in the future, everyone will learn this useful skill – probably in kindergarten!”
Future Catalog recognised computers as a valuable learning tool – and predicted that computers in the classroom would become commonplace “within 10 years (1990s)”. But beyond that, the book envisaged a world where we were all programmers, adapting and changing computers to meet our needs.
Certainly computers have become vital learning tools, with connected devices like tablets, desktops and laptops featuring in almost every school. School kids themselves enjoy the benefits of having smartphones at hand – which has become the reality in the last decade or so.
But not all of us are programmers. Instead, the programmers and software developers of the world do that tough job for us, and develop apps and systems that are easy for us every-day folk to use. They are also some of the highest paid people in the world.
“In the future you won’t have to learn a foreign language in order to talk to people from other countries. You’ll just get out your electronic language translator. “
Although manual language translators were around in the 80s, Future Catalog saw a much more fluid future for translation technology, where one could insert a ‘capsule’ into a machine for which ever language you want to translate.
Even with 2017’s technology, fluid translation remains just out of reach, despite major strides. Google Translate has proven to be “adequate” at deciphering the texts of other languages, while there are many apps available that can “live” translate signs and messages in foreign countries.
However, the complexities of language – the nuances, inferences and connotations – are still beyond our reach. At least for now.