Nostalgia for the future

I’m a fan of the future. No, not the one beyond the present. I mean the future as seen from the 1950s – 1980s. When the year 2000 was going to be all flying cars and food pills. Whatever happened to that future?

One of my favourite relics of The Future is The Usborne Book of the Future, published in 1979. I had it as a child and I was excited to discover that it had been scanned and put online.

When I was little, I enjoyed reading of the authors’ vision of the future. Was it to be a brown, smoggy dying world, or would we get our act together and live in a green, thriving utopia with robots to clean the toilet?

But the one thing that really confused me was an illustration of a hologram conference call – where some businesspeople see their boss across the table, only he’s a hologram.


It wasn’t the technology that confused me. It was the fact that is was daylight for the staff and night-time for the boss. I didn’t understand how the two states could exist simultaneously. My mum tried explaining about the shape of the earth and time zones, but it did not compute.

Now, maybe the idea of cyborgs with ESP or colonising Venus is still pretty far-fetched, but the Computers in the Home section didn’t do too badly with his predictions – A giant flat-screen TV! A home video camera! Ordering goods off a computer! A video disk player! Electronic mail! A robot butler!

All of those innovations are now part of my everyday life (Except the robot butler – I threw my RoboButler2000 off a cliff after he gained sentience and started pilfering my Jack Daniel’s. What a hassle that was.) Though, unlike the future suburbanites in the book, I don’t lounge about in a jumpsuit.

But is is worth considering that the idea of email as we know it was too far out to be considered – email back then involved writing out a letter by hand, scanning it, sending it, and then printing out at the other end. OMG -fax!

And unlike the 1950s’ sexist vision of The Future, were women did housework in their space homes, bringing their husband his space pipe and space slippers, this 1979 vision of The Future appears to have gone one step future and has no women in it at all. Or – and I think this theory has weight – perhaps by the year 2000 the human race has evolved into one sex – everyone is totally gay for everyone else! (This doesn’t explain the abundance of jumpsuits, though.)

But I’m not going to be nostalgic for the future too much. I’ll just take comfort that while it’s the cybertronic year 2008, even though the lush, green solar-powered utopian future hasn’t happened, at least the dirty brown nightmare future hasn’t happened either.


Perhaps it’s most revealing that both visions of the future include brutalist architecture.