The First Decade of the 21st Century: Thumbs Down

Posted by Michael Pinto on Dec 19, 2009 in Science |

An L5 colony illustration from the 70s

As a child of the 21st Century I had a clear set of expectations on what the future would look like thanks to watching too much many science fiction television shows. Now of course even as a child I had a clear understanding of what was and wasn’t going to be possible in terms of technology: For example anything you’d see on Star Trek was pretty much off limits — as the show took place in the 23rd Century. So while I knew that interstellar travel, transporter devices and even time travel might occur — sadly for yours truly that would happen after I was history.

However there were various television shows that were set in the near future — in fact a great of science fiction was obsessed with the year 2000 which seemed magical because it had a 20 instead of a 19 at the beginning. But also there was the assumption that one century would be so much better than the last, after all wasn’t the 20th Century so much cooler than the 19th Century? Overnight it seems everyone suddenly had cars, aircraft, television sets, air conditioning, penicillin, atomic bombs and even a trip to the moon. It was only logical to expect a similar quantum leap for the next hundred years, so it was a sure bet you’d have energy too cheap to meter and landing on Mars seems like such a no brainer when put into context.

Moonbase Alpha from the TV series Space:1999 which was made in the mid-70s.

Moonbase Alpha from the TV series Space:1999 — this was suppose to be my home: Instead I have to settle for Brooklyn!

The first show that gave me a taste of this future was Space:1999. While at heart I knew everything that took place after the moon left orbit was pure fantasy (especially season two!) the initial setting of the series seemed as realistic as you could get. For starters you have a fully functional moonbase set up and running, and there’s a solid economic reason for it to be there: To store nuclear waste. Now there had been some major wars on Earth, but that seemed reasonable given that you had two world wars at the start of the 20th Century. But on the whole this was a pretty sleek looking world with computer everywhere and adorned with designed Italian furniture.

Sometime after that I discovered the film 2001: A Space Odyssey to which Space:1999 owed a great deal in terms of the picture that it painted. The credit for that really belongs to Kubrick who used Arthur C. Clarke’s short story as a starting point. Kubrick spent years researching the near future and every bit of that comes out on screen.

The Orion III Space Clipper from 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Orion III Space Clipper model kit from 2001: A Space Odyssey: PanAm sticker not shown…

Kubrick’s vision painted an even grander scale of accomplishment than Space:1999. For starters space travel was so commonplace that PanAm had regular flights to a moonbase that was so large in scale that it put Space:1999 to shame. In fact the moonbase shown was one of several on the moon — and making things cooler humans were shooting past Mars to explore Jupiter. And then add to this that videophones are common and the first wave of AI capable computers are available.

But I should point out that this vision wasn’t limited to science fiction: In the 70s there was a serious expectation that creating space colonies was economically realistic using the technology of that era. The artifacts of this are the illustrations of L5 space colonies — but what many folks don’t realize was that these weren’t illustrations of what the future was, but what we’d be building in the next few years.

An L5 Space Colony

An L5 colony illustration from the 70s: This was proposed with 70s technology in mind.

During this time I found myself becoming active in the L5 Society and becoming a card carrying member of the Space Studies Institute. Both of these groups were working on the idea that if we could get NASA the proper Apollo era of funding that some amazing things could happen. This wasn’t some far out notion either — Gerard K. O’Neill was doing some amazing research on how to do manufacturing in outer space.

Of course as I aged I became more and more disillusioned with the primitive world that I lived in. By the 80s some amazing science fiction films were being made — but NASA was in a very sad state. Not only hadn’t we gone to the moon, but the space shuttle was a throwback to the early 60s. You could now get into orbit with ease, but we never went any further than that. Of course things got off to a bad start with Skylab falling to Earth in 1979 followed by the 1986 Challenger disaster. Not weren’t we on the moon — we couldn’t even pull off getting into orbit and back safely.

An automobile from the television series UFO which was set in the year 1980. Sadly no car looked this cool in the 80s...

An automobile from the television series UFO which was set in the year 1980. Sadly no car looked this cool in the 80s…

And thus my realization had occurred that we in fact were living in a dark age. Others signs in the 80s were there of course — not only couldn’t we cure cancer, but new diseases like AIDS were popping up. And even everyday technology didn’t seem that impressive: For example automobiles under the hood in the 80s and 90s weren’t that much different than the clunkers of twenty years earlier. And if you looked at the most impressive tech of this era the personal computers and Walkman devices were cute, but they built out on existing technologies I had seen before. These were also cute consumer goodies which didn’t fill my hunger for domed cities and the like.

The apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey

We’re really not much more advanced than this I’m sorry to say…

But the 90s I realized that the revolution just wasn’t going to come — we weren’t the crew on Kubrick’s Discovery, instead we were the dumb apes at he start of the film. Yes the Berlin Wall fell, yes cell phones were cute and yes the early days of the net were fun — but everyday life in the late 90s didn’t look too different than the 70s to me except that everyone I knew was older.

Ironically it was during this time that the first exoplanets were discovered thanks to Hubble. But even this was a cruel reminder that not only were these Star Trek planets out there in the galaxy, but as a specifies were so stupid that we couldn’t even get to Mars which was only 36 million miles away. Now I’ll grant you at this point that armed with my art school BFA I knew I wasn’t going to be flying spaceships — but even the idea of a lucky few planting the American flag on Mars seemed hopeless.

The comlock from Space:1999

The comlock from Space:1999 acted as a portable videophone and door opener.

So now I’ve arrived at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century and I’m a heartbroken man. Yes in some respects things are a little bit futuristic: On paper the career I have building websites didn’t even exist when I was in school. And in my pocket is an iPhone which is almost as cool as the Comlock device from Space:1999. But to be blunt with all of you: I have yet to come across a computer that 1% as cool as HAL from 2001. Most of the tech I see today is what I might have expected to see in the 80s, most lost decade of Walkman mix tapes.

an octopus using a coconut as a tool

Don’t think that humans are too clever: Shown here is an octopus using a coconut as a tool.

In conclusion I feel that as a species we aren’t half as bright as we think we are — humans are overrated when it comes to technology. The other day I was looking at an octopus using a coconut as a tool to create a portable shelter, and I got to tell you that given a lack of an opposable thumb and language skills that they’re doing more with what they have than we’re allowing ourselves to even dream of.

I can only hope that in the remainder of my lifetime that I might see humanity get back to the level of technical achievement that occurred during the early years of the space age. If we’re lucky and China or India can put together a moon landing maybe it would encourage the United States or Russia to try for Mars. And sadly I know that might not even start to happen until the year 2020 at this rate.

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