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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Education & Society

Futurology, beyond 2000

The ‘futures practitioners’ of the 1980s imagined a world bright with technological advances. But how do their predictions measure up by 2014 standards? JAYLAN BOYLE investigates.

Teachers of a certain age - science teachers in particular - may remember an Australian series called Beyond 2000 that was the highlight of this reporter’s week (as a 10-year old): it was a very successful ‘futurology’ show that ran from 1985 to 1999 (for obvious reasons), and attempted to reach into the crystal ball and show us what life was going to be like when our generation was old enough to afford a flying car, which would surely be commonplace by the turn of the millennium, right?

Though debate still rages as to whether it’s an art or a science, futurology (according to Wikipedia) is ‘the study of postulating possible, probable and preferable futures, and the worldviews and myths that underlie them.’ Some see it as having parallels with the study of history.

Yet, though futurology doesn’t have a rigorous methodology - in that sense it’s closer to an art form – there are techniques employed by ‘futures practitioners’. It’s a job that’s increasingly in demand: which company or government wouldn’t like its very own window onto the future tastes and preferences of customers and citizens?

Essentially, what futurists are doing is extrapolation: taking into consideration the patterns of the past, and the current ‘state of play’, what assumptions can we reasonably make about the future?

So now that we’re deep into the new millennium - to the point that it’s redundant to refer to our current age in that way anymore – how did Beyond 2000 do when we look in the rear view mirror?

Maglev trains

Find this clip on youtube.

If you can wrest your eyes from the stunning circa-1987 couture as modelled by the presenters, the piece on Maglev trains (1 min 10 sec) is a good place for students to start with an examination as to the effectiveness of the Beyond 2000 crystal ball: assuming teachers can suppress the giggles.

Even in 1987, Maglev technology – trains that are levitated and propelled by powerful magnets that eliminate the problem of fiction – wasn’t exactly new: the concept goes back to the ‘60s. In this 1987 episode of Beyond 2000, the presenter seems to be suggesting with great confidence that Maglev technology will make conventional rail transport redundant by next Tuesday (1987); and there’s lots of reasons to assume that he must have turned out to be right: the big one is friction. There’s none of it. This means less power is required to accelerate and decelerate; everything about the train lasts longer (there is no impact between train and rail); and – in theory at least – much higher speeds can be attained.

The video presenter is investigating the Transrapid system in Hamburg, Germany, and they appear to have the whole thing basically sorted: their train is very much up and running, albeit on a test track. Someone is clearly poised to make an astronomical amount of money.

Yet it’s highly likely that not one student in your class has ever been anywhere near a Maglev train. Despite many viewing the technology as the ‘promised land’ in transportation, and despite the hugely attractive characteristics and potential of Maglev, in 2014 there are exactly two commercial systems in operation. Shanghai bought the Transrapid system in 2004 – with no shortage of detractors calling it a white elephant ever since - and Japan has got its own much slower counterpart.

So what happened? Well, that’s the subject of much hotly contested debate: theories range from collusion between conventional rail bad guys to exaggeration of the potential benefits of the technology. It seems that every time someone tries to get one of these things off the ground, the project is mired in controversy and abandoned for one reason or another.

Occam’s Razor states that the simplest answer is more often than not the right one. An answer falling into this category that might help to explain the glaring something else where there should be your local Maglev station is this: backwards compatibility. Try as you might, a Maglev train can’t be made to run on conventional rail tracks. When you consider how much land is taken up by railway lines across the world, and how much money is invested in them staying right where they are, it’s suddenly not that surprising that no-one has yet been quite brave enough to chuck it all out and start again. It seems counter-intuitive – given that the technology should pay for itself at some point – but the Maglev lesson to futorologists is this: the human factor plays just as much of a role in shaping the future as the technology itself, if not more.  A computer asked to predict the future would be very confused as to why we aren’t whizzing to school on a Maglev train every day, but most of the time it takes extraordinary individuals – not just extraordinary tech – who have the courage to leap into the unknown, and take a punt on the future.  

‘Wearable’ technology:

If your classroom could use a little levity, look no further than this Beyond 2000 clip featuring 1992’s idea of augmentation tech. Older students may note that this clip actually features a futurological subtext: the ‘introduction guy’ is wearing a jumper that would be snapped up in short order by today’s vintage clothing enthusiasts. This guy has clearly got his finger on the pulse of the future, because those who remember 1992 can attest to the fact that this guy can’t be considered a fashion leader of his time.

Once you’re able to get your students to stop gaping at the fascinatingly cumbersome gadgets that “every executive will be wearing to meetings by the year 2000”, ask them when the last time was that they posted to facebook using their smart phone. The answer will of course be ‘before school’, but our point is that in the video, one of the models was supposedly sending an email (though, interestingly, no fingers appear to actually make contact with the ‘keyboard’. Way ahead of its time).

In other words, despite all the visual evidence to the contrary, Beyond 2000 got this one sort of right. This is a classic case where the crystal ball just needed a wipe: they foresaw the need for portable computers and augmentation technology, but in terms of the form that these things would take, they were way off the mark.

It’s very obvious to 2014 eyes why this is: who would seriously consider wearing any of the ‘stylish’ wearable computers from the video?! Their form is not compatible with their function. Imagine lugging this gear around all day! Yet, the developers who bent their brains around the problem of bulky 1990’s computers were likely among the first to imagine a world where a computer is less a useful tool than an extension and an augmentation of ourselves: very much like the modern smartphone, Google Glass, or the Android Watch Phone.

And that’s what futurology is all about - it starts with a problem. The modern smartphone or ipad represents the convergence of two technology streams: the telephone and the computer.

The telephone was a response to the fact that communication relied on horses, and therefore took ages. So Alexander Grahame Bell thought to himself, ‘imagine if a conversation could happen between people who are in totally different locations.’

Computers came about because of the number-crunching limitations of the human brain. We simply can’t do maths very quickly, not to mention the fact that we can only concentrate on one thing at a time, and we get tired. In the modern smart phone, we have an extrapolation of both these ideas: when we look back on it, we see a very natural and logical progression, from monolithic machine (the first useful computers were housed in multi-story buildings!), to something you could chuck on the backseat (the first personal computers), to a handy accessory (the Casio calculator and the first cell phones), to a multi-use ‘life device’ that can perform lots of different tasks… To what? A chip implanted in the brain? Would that be a logical extrapolation? In this sense, technology mirrors evolution: ‘Mother Nature’ has also had some pretty wacky ideas in ‘her’ time, but in the end, if an adaptation (which can be seen as analogous to our imagination) isn’t useful and effective in the long run, it gets culled.

Kodak photo CDs: companies rely on futurology

This video demonstrates an interesting pre-cursor to the modern digital camera; using a ‘normal’ film camera of the day, you snapped away, took the negatives to the chemist, and they returned both prints and a CD-ROM disc that you… wait for it… played on your TV!

The story of Kodak, the behemoth 20th century producer of film and cameras, and their eventual collision with our modern world, is a Titanic-like cautionary tale for those companies who remain wilfully blind to the future. It was broke, and they needed to fix it, but by the time the big shots at head office realised, it was way too late.

Kodak in fact invented the core technology that would become the digital camera - they produced the world’s first in 1975. They then proceeded to drop the idea for fear that it would undermine their film business! Many years later when Kodak eventually had to declare bankruptcy, it was lamented that “Kodak executives couldn’t fathom a future without traditional film… so there was little incentive to change.”

In 1993, did Kodak think that digital cameras would never catch on? Or that the technology would never become cheap enough to the average consumer? (as mentioned, digital cameras were out there; though they had come down from $44,000 (in today’s terms) for a camera that produced images of newspaper quality, they were still prohibitively expensive.) Why were they offering a service that digitised photos taken on a film camera, which we now know as scanning? Did they see this as an intermediary step? Why would people have wanted to ‘watch’ photos on their TVs? And you had to buy a photo player!

Another interesting message in this Beyond 2000 video is that ‘wow-factor’ is relative: the presenter says breathlessly, “but what’s most impressive is the clarity.” To today’s eyes, the image quality is terrible! Yet this was the forefront of technology at the time. From here, students should be able to imagine that their favourite video game today is guaranteed to be nothing more than a nostalgic embarrassment in the eyes of their own children.

-          Jaylan Boyle is a reporter at APN Educational Media.

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