The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be

My wife and I have in the works a series of science fiction stories set in a dark future, based on where we see current political and cultural trends potentially headed. One thing we’ve been ribbed about is that our future is not futuristic enough.


As a recovering journalist, I like to make sure statements about the present are as accurate possible. As a writer, my wife is determined to not make inaccurate predictions about the future. Our story’s set in an indeterminate future time where the year is reckoned by the rule of a global empire which, as of yet, has not set up housekeeping on Earth. Thus, until such an Empire begins and reigns for a few decades or more, you can’t even suggest we were wrong. If it doesn’t come along, our warnings were heeded, the Empire avoided. If it does, well, you’ll have more to worry about than tracking down a couple of novelists to whine about the inaccuracies in their book. My wife thus combined the dedication to accuracy of a reporter with the cunning of a lawyer.


Of course, we made some assumptions. Under the influence of corrupt despotism, with extremely high punitive tax rates, in the Years of the Empire, green tape strangleholds make businesses feel like they’ve been put in a headlock by the Hulk (the Incredible one not Hogan.) the economy would grow at a snail’s pace. It’s a miracle that after a hundred years they have dish generators to turn garbage into electricity and recycle dirty dishes, and 3D Holowindows to watch television on. Don’t even ask me for starships. The same green tape strangling their economy also punishes scientists researching anything but solutions to environmentalists’ pet concerns.


Pity poor Robert Zemeckis. His hit trilogy, Back to the Future, is dated, quite literally. The 1955, 1985, and 1885 scenes stand the test of time, but in Back to the Future II, we’re taken to the year 2015 to see Zemeckis’ vision of the future.


Robert Zemeckis, you are no Nostradamus. 2015 is right around the corner. Zemeckis’ future has six years to happen and, unless Mr. Obama really has a magic wand, it looks like it’ll be as absurd as Lost in Space’s vision of Intergalactic travel in 1999.

Some of the predictions Zemeckis made that appear not to have come true and are unlikely to hit by 2015 include:


  • No flying cars.
  • No garbage powered cars.
  • No rejuvenation clinics that can add 40 years to your life.
  • No automatically adjusting clothes that adjust to fit your size.
  • No clothes that dry themselves off
  • No hover boards.
  • No dog-walking robots.
  • No 3D Movie trailers in the townsquare that jump out at you.
  • No elimination of all lawyers (Please, can we work on this one? To quote MLK: “I have a dream.”)
  • While some high tech installations have Thumb Print scanners, they’re unlikely to replace your old fashioned lock any time soon.
  • No tiny dehydrated Pizza from Pizza Hut that will grow to full size if you add water. It’s true that Dominoes sells shriveled dehydrated pizzas, but unfortunately they don’t rehydrate. They were just left in the oven too long
  • No readily available cybernetic implants to take your neighborhood idiot and turn him into a supercharged idiot.


Did Zemeckis get anything right? Yes, being able to watch multiple channels at the same time is a reality. But compared to hoverboards, it’s a “big whoop.”  Also, there are some automated ordering systems as well as self-check out. Of course, nothing was a grandiose as Zemeckis’ ‘80s café where a virtual Ronald Reagan takes your order. Zemeckis also gets a partial for suggesting video games would be way cooler than they were in the 1980s, but he got it wrong when he predicted that kids would not be playing them with their hands.  


Finally, he uses the common sci-fi trope of the videophone, which actually made it’s début in the sixties, had already long since tanked by the time the movie was made, and has never made a comeback. Today it exists as one of many features available for PCs and high end mobile phones, which most users pass up in favor of more sophmoric features. Not exactly the future Zemeckis envisioned.


Now, I’m sure there’s some tech geeks who will protest, “Some guy in Indiana has a flying car or a dog-walking robot.” But it’s not being mass-marketed, and it’s really unlikely to happen in the next six years.


Zemeckis’s future, oddly enough didn’t contain cell phones, which may have been the easiest to predict tech trend in recent decades. I cut him slack on other missing components, like MP3 players, which just may not have been seen in our brief peak at 2015, but the everyday annoyance of omnipresent cell phones should have been an easy call when the film was presented.


So how does Back to the Future, Part II stand out? Actually, fairly well. Watching the movie as a kid back in the ‘90s I had no idea how probable it would be that we’d have hoverboards. I just wanted one.


Beyond that, the characters and the story are a lot of fun. It delivers a memorable message on the dangers of greed, arrogance, and being a hothead with only a small touch of ethnic stereotyping. Marty McFly, the Irishman, is hotheaded? You don’t say.

Despite a few plot holes, it’s still a fun movie, and the film’s outrageous predictions didn’t phase me in enjoying it. The morals of the story for writers:


·        Don’t try to predict the exact shape of the future: you can’t.

·        Having gadgets for the sake of gadgets is dumb.

·        Good writing covers a multitude of techno-prophetic sins.


More importantly, as Doc Brown said, “The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”

3 thoughts on “The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be”

  1. EXCELLENT! I loved every word of what you had to say. It certainly makes sense after what Andrea and I shared with one another.

    Blessings for a great New Year!
    Paulette and Jim Harris

  2. Finally, he uses the common sci-fi trope of the videophone, which actually made it’s début in the sixties, had already long since tanked by the time the movie was made

    Not so sure on this account. My daughter uses Skype daily. Everyone at her school has a school-issued MacBook with a camera standard, so they all videophone each other. A lot. They like it because it doesn’t “ring” (alerting Mom that they’re using the phone at midnight) and it’s free (doesn’t waste their cell minutes or deliver a bill showing how much time they chat).

    I know of missionaries who use Skype to keep in touch back home like they never could before. No cell tower or landline phone required–just internet (which seems to be easier to find and cheaper than long distance calls ever cost). They could probably use VOIP just as easily if it was free. (Is it? I have no idea.) No, videophone hasn’t replaced voice-only phones, but the idea isn’t quite tanked.

    Back to the rest of the article. You know, sometimes when we tell future stories, it isn’t about probable or “real” predictions. It’s about what would be cool. More than just the hoverboard fit into that category. I seriously want that retractable garden in my dining room roof. Will I ever get one? I don’t know. But would our cell phones look as they do today if Star Trek communicators hadn’t looked almost exactly the same in the sixties? Sometimes the storytellers drive the future as much as they play with predictions.

  3. The videophone that came out in the sixties actually peaked at 500 subscribers and faded away by 1974, according to wikipedia. That’s what tanked. The point is there is no technological reason we don’t have the kind of videophones pictured by movies like Back to the Future right now as we’ve had the capability for over fifty years. Skype is quickly changing the scene, granted, but such technologies are unlikely to come into the wide use envisioned by the masters within the next six years. It most likely will remain a nitch market device for geeks, businesses (teleconferencing), teenagers (who like novelty), and families spread over the miles for whom face to face isn’t possible. Which means the prediction hasn’t come true, just as we stated, as the prediction was that videophones, depicted generally as the way high end TVs look today, will replace regular phones. Instead we have cell phones and video is just one gadget of many to choose from and texting is actually all the rage (at least that is what I generally here so much about.)

    BTW, some of the stuff we sweetly pointed out won’t be happening in the next six years, does show up in our own fiction. For instance, our solar-powered hydrogen fuel cell cars come with dashboard computers, which respond to voice commands and the more powerful ones support Skype (as well as GPS/auto-pilot of course!) Though obviously they don’t use vid in the car! Well, I suppose some models have HV windows in back for the kids, but we never had occassion to make that a plot point. But the criticism thrown our way in the past is no longer at all fair 😉 Though few use HV as a phone. As it shows up in our work, it’s usually either for business use, an accident, keeping in touch over long distances (in one scene holo is used so a guy can join his family for dinner while on a business trip), or for novelty. When one of our tech guys has a vision in the YE series, his first reaction is basically, “Okay, where’s the holo coming from, and why go to the trouble to set this up?”

    –Andrea Graham

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