Just think how much easier housekeeping would be today if the one-eyed robot maid had come on the market as predicted.
In a 1967 speech to the Women's National Democratic Club, no less an authority than Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg, then head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, touted the benefits of a box-shaped, multi-armed device that would be programmed for the specific needs of the housewife of 2000. Robot maid, he told his audience, might be capable of simultaneously sweeping, vacuuming, dusting, washing "and picking up your husband's clothing."
So much for progress.
So much for prognostication.
For virtually the last century, the year that will debut in just two weeks has loomed large in the human imagination. Endless predictions have been made about what life would be like by now--with the assumption that amazing advances and changes would transform the world and ease its daily burdens.
But as it turns out, the future that's knocking at the door, with some notable exceptions, bears scant resemblance to what was foretold. Thirty-three years ago, for instance, then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey was dead wrong when he predicted climate control, manned trips to Mars and the elimination of bacterial and viral diseases by 2000. Lots of other people were wrong too, with forecasts that today sound technically unfeasible at best, laughably wacky at worst.
How else to describe a Xerox Corp. report several decades ago? It presaged huge changes in education by the 21st century, thanks to a greater understanding of the learning process and use of technology. Students would be able to finish in four years what previously had taken 12. Simply wire them into a computer, the report urged, and download away!
"No more messy keyboarding," Xerox promised with breezy optimism. "Just put on your Electro Encephalogram cap (make sure electrodes are firmly attached) and quiz the machine for the desired knowledge, even while you are sleeping."
Others were sure that traffic congestion would be a thing of the past and that politics and political parties would have disappeared like the dinosaurs.
Given the propensity of these musings to misfire, fairness demands that the accurate ones be recognized. In that same talk at the women's club in Washington, for example, Seaborg said that by the year 2000, people would use computer consoles in their homes to connect to a large complex of "central station computers" for banking, shopping and news--a stunning foreshadowing of the Internet and World Wide Web.
Actually, the precision of a prediction is often less important than the prediction itself. In a world grown helter-skelter with change, supposing about the future is a comforting way of asserting a sense of control.
"The yearning for not stumbling docilely into the future is very pronounced," sociologist Amitai Etzioni said. The George Washington University professor has studied contemporary social change for more than four decades and believes society has a psychological need to speculate about events in the offing. "I would argue that the more our world is coming apart, the more anxious we are about what tomorrow holds."
Prognosticating is primarily a phenomena of modern times. Not that biblical figures didn't offer thoughts about the future, but their prophecies frequently were conditioned on personal behavior and delivered more as moral allegories. They were hardly date-specific.
Even into the latter 1800s, the pace of change was so slow and so beyond most people's experience that imagining life 50 or 100 years out seemed futile.
"If you're only going to live 35 years, you're only going to look ahead in relatively small chunks," noted Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, a public policy research organization that identifies trends for government and business. "Your frame of reference is very different."
This started to change around the beginning of the 1900s, with the triple zeros of 2000 acting like a super magnet on soothsayers of any and every qualification. The Ladies Home Journal offered one of the earliest conjectures on human existence 100 years hence, and in the subsequent rush forward, scientists, writers, governments and companies weighed in.
Looking into their crystal balls, they saw plastic houses, atomic kitchens, meltable dishes and waterproof furniture. The standard work week, some said, would decrease to 20 hours. The population would settle into enormous megalopolises. One would stretch from Boston to Washington--and be called Boswash.
"The city of tomorrow will tend first to vastness," explained the August 1939 issue of Amazing Stories, one of the numerous gee-whiz hobby and sci-fi magazines that began to appear in the 1920s. "Gigantic buildings connected by wide, suspended roadways on which traffic will speed at unheard of rates. . . . Each building will be virtually a city in itself, completely self-sustaining, receiving its supplies from great merchandise ways far below the ground. Dwellers and workers in these buildings may go weeks without setting foot on the ground."
Vehicles of transport were invented and reinvented endlessly: snub-nosed "Airphibian" propeller-cars, sleek atomic-powered hovercraft, luxurious magnet-controlled flying saucers. By 2000, visionaries expected that lunar liners routinely would be ferrying passengers--everyday folks--to the moon.
"The '50s were filled with that sort of stuff," recounted Stanford University senior lecturer Joseph J. Corn, who came of age then, religiously reading his future-filled Popular Mechanics--"every cover of which had some sort of glorified space or land or sea machine on it."
The images made a deep impression. Three decades later, Corn conceived the hugely popular "Yesterday's Tomorrows" at the National Museum of American History. The 1984 exhibition showed the 20th century's almost unflagging exuberance about the promise of machines and technology. Appropriately enough, in 2001 it will be resurrected for a two-year, 15-state tour.
Local officials also tried their hand at prognostication. In a 1961 report focusing on the Washington region circa 2000, the National Capital Planning Commission speculated that "family helicopters for leisure time use along controlled airways" were a possibility.
Twenty years later, then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry ventured a prediction or two of his own. By 2000, he said, his prosperous, revitalized city would have gained both population and voting rights. Instead, the District lost more than 210,000 residents, and the ones who remain still aren't represented fully in Congress.
It's getting tougher, not easier, to look ahead. As the editor in chief, John Rennie, wrote in this month's Scientific American, "The rates of change in technology, scientific knowledge and public affairs are so great that imagination falls short."
Not that anyone is giving up on the effort. The December cover of Rennie's magazine trumpeted "What Science Will Know in 2050." The February issue of Popular Mechanics will feature the "Miracles of the Next 50 Years." The Futurist, a monthly publication of the Bethesda-based World Future Society, offered its top 10 list early on; among the forecasts, that electronic microchips implanted in a person's forearm could signal a computer to turn on a building's heat and lights and that, by 2100, 90 percent of the world's 6,000 languages could become extinct.
"Anyone who tells us they can predict for 20 years out, I tell them to predict three months," scoffed GWU professor Etzioni. Still, he's positive about one thing in the future:
"We're all going to get more anxious."