Just a few short decades ago as our nation accepted the challenge to put a man on the moon, we were all filled with visions of the future. America collectively imagined the new technologies that would become commonplace and transform our lives as we moved into the 21st century. Flying cars, moving sidewalks, household robots, and more, we thought, would be here by the century’s end making our lives easy and carefree. Looking around today, a decade into the new century, some of us are scratching our heads and wondering what happened? Did we stop innovating? Or are the iPhone and the Wii really the best we can do?
The space race did give us some new technologies that made it into our lives. Who can forget that Corning Ware can from research into heat resistant materials for space capsules? Our comfortable conforming memory foam mattresses were developed as a result of scientists trying to find a way to safely cushion astronauts’ bodies from the crushing G forces of a rocket launch. While I certainly do sleep more soundly on my memory foam mattress with my vision-filled head nestled into my memory foam pillow, it’s not exactly the rocket cars, I imagined as I read Asimov and Heinlein novels back in the 1970’s.
But maybe I’m being too judgmental. I do own a Roomba, which is after all a household robot that vacuums my house for me. Still not flying car, but if I had the initiative, I could buy an ultralight plane and fly down to the general store for an energy drink. Instead of flying in to work each morning, I use this thing called the internet to earn my living from home and send articles like this one to millions (ok thousands) of readers all around the world. I get paid electronically and transfer funds to my creditors through the ether so that I never have to stand in line at a bank. There are no moving sidewalks relieving traffic congestion in the big cities, but Dean Kamen did give us the Segway and we do have treadmills in our basements so that we can run on a sort of moving sidewalk in the comfort of our own homes.
Somehow, though, it’s just not what I imagined. It seems that lately we are innovating in defensive mode. By that I mean that we are trying to do things we did ten or twenty years ago, but with less pollution and harmful byproducts. We don’t even seem to dream of what the world might look like a hundred years from now with hopeful wonder as we once did. Instead we just hope that it will still be nearly as good as it is today. Hopefully we’ll be able to go outside without the sun blazing through an ozone-free sky burning our skins, without choking on the poison air. Maybe, we’ll even be able to visit today’s coastal communities, like Boston’s Back Bay without scuba gear.
I feel as though I have been cheated out of the future that could have been. The only thing I know for certain is that the future will turn out differently than any of us can imagine today. Perhaps there is still room for dreams of hope and wonder for the technology of tomorrow.