It has finally arrived in blazing trail of flaming tire marks, October 21, 2015. This day has been hotly anticipated by the Internet, but much like October 20th or September 21st, the truth is that it is a day like any other. We look at the world that Marty McFly visited and part of us wonder why it is so different than our own? Where are our flying cars? Where are my dog-walking drones? And where are the hoverboards? (God knows we’ve tried.) The real fact of the matter is that the future is harder to predict than a comedy movie about about a time traveling DeLorean might have us believe.
It is important to remember that there was never a plan for Back to the Future II. It was the commercial success of the original movie that created the sequel, not some grand ideas about the future of the world. Most of the predictions made in that second movie were done for laughs, and yet it is ironic that many of the more comical predictions, like 80’s themed restaurants, where the things that actually came true. Back to the Future never claimed to be an authority on what was to come, and despite that it managed to get more than a few things right, maybe not in practice but principal. For instance, it predicted that Flea would still be around, and who would have guessed that was true.
Prophesizing about the future is hard. Even real scientists and their teenage sidekicks have made incredibly wrong predictions about what is to come, and for some incredibly believable reasons. For decades, whenever we got a new gadget or gizmo that we believed would be the “future of mankind,” our predictions often made that thing bigger and better going forward. After all, if computers were the wave of the future than surely they only continue to grow to the size of buildings? In the 90’s some people believed that arcades would become massive places of entertainment. Yet, we have learned in the past three decades that miniaturization was always more likely, computers got smaller and video games got personal. Even Doc Brown never guessed about things like the Internet, Wi-Fi, or smartphones, because he had never seen them before.
As humans we think we know what will happen because of a common confusion between prediction and hindsight. In 1932 Albert Einsteins famously said, “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” At the time he was not wrong. It was just that his experiences and understanding of the world of the present made such an act seem feasibly impossible. We don’t have a flying DeLorean to help us see what is coming so we have to rely on our ideas and understanding of past patterns. It’s one of the reasons why we are always predicting doomsday around the next corner. Our personal experiences coupled with unrealistic feelings of nostalgia tell us how much worse things are now, so we must surely be heading for the end times?
Cultural Flux Capacitor
The changing potential of our future is not limited by our technological achievements. If anything culture is a far greater factor on the development of what our tomorrows look like. Back when George McFly was still busy being a creeper outside his Lea Thompson’s window, people believed that by 2015 we would have robots and easy-clean synthetic materials to help Mom out around the house. All those ideas about the technology that would exists to help out the “little woman” never really accounted for the fact that maybe wives and mothers didn’t want to spend their lives as homemakers. So instead we got technologies like dishwashers and microwaves, conveniences meant to help families with two working parents.
One of the most innovative and flashy technologies of Back to the Future II is the flying car. It’s the kind of invention everyone was waiting for, but it never happened. The truth is that we could probably make it happen with our current level of technology if we were so inclined, but we’re not. In a world of frivolous litigation, high insurance premiums, and fluctuating gas prices a flying car is completely impractical. Think of how much of a hassle it is when you bump another car at a traffic light. Now imagine that you are 2,000 feet up in the air and one or both cars comes crashing out of the sky and lands on some poor guy’s deck. Somehow we don’t think that even 15 minutes will save you 15% or less on that kind of a fender bender. What the movie failed to guess at was the rise of the electric and self driven cars, which are far more likely in today’s world of climate change and overcrowded highways, because those have become our new priorities and/or frustrations.
Our lives and our culture change ever year. When you were a kid, maybe more than ever you wanted that one special toy, but of course it was way too expensive to get. Now that you are older and have an actual job with a paycheck you could easily afford that toy, but you have other priorities. -Food, rent, video games, etc- We are not saying these new priorities are wrong, just different, and as a kid you never really understood how your life was going to change as you got older. Society is like that, we are constantly changing along with our needs and wants. That is why the predictions of the 50’s are different than the predictions of the 80’s, which are different than the predictions of today. Our understanding and priorities keep shifting. -Though, truthfully, we at the NYRD would still argue that there is always time for toys.-
Marty, The Future Isn’t Written
The back and forth between culture and technology is not a one way street. They are two sides of a coin. In fact it is a little like time travel. When you alter or change the technology you run the risk of altering the culture and the course of our society going forward. So like old Biff and his now outdated sports almanac, every new technology or cultural shift has the potential to create ripple effects that change the trajectory of our future. For instance, in the movie we see that the Marty McFly of the future is still using fax technology in his home. Nowadays we look at that and laugh because, -apparently unlike the screenwriters- we know the true potential of The Internet and how it changed everything.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, which means that if you fail to predict one thing you have the potential of missing everything connected to it. Think about it. If you never conceived of the Internet, then you miss things like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Napster. You also fail to foresee things like the collapse of the music industry, the changing nature of on-demand streaming, Uber and its potential impact on the transportation and car industries, and more. You would have no way of knowing how such things affect today’s youth culture or even geopolitical revolutions. The Internet has changed the way we think of communication, humor, language, navigation, and even knowledge itself. In turn our lives and goals have changed. We no longer leave work at work. Emails follow us around every where, which is something that -arguably- Back to the Future II actually did predict. We also now worry about government surveillance, maintaining online personas, taking pictures of our food, and about writing overly-detailed articles about 30 year old movie franchises and their correlations to modern culture. These are not concerns that Marty was thinking about back when he was jamming out to fresh beats of Huey Lewis and the News, but they are the realities of today.
It is also worth noting that art and movies like Back to the Future have a place in all this. Think about all the products we have developed in the past few years. Nike has created self-tying shoes, Pepsi even created Pepsi Perfect, and of course, there is our seemingly endless quest for hoverboards. Heck, we could write a whole separate article on the technology that inspired by Star Trek, Star Wars, and other science fiction and fantasy movies, comics, books, and television shows. Human beings are dreamers and we almost instinctively look to our fictions, such as Back to the Future, for inspiration. Part of science fiction and movies in general is to help us see worlds we can only dream of and then question how we can achieve them for ourselves.
In essence, we may not always be great about predicting the future, but Great Scott, are we amazing at creating stories that inspire it. So do not despair that we don’t have all the cool things of Marty McFly’s future. Instead, rejoice at what we do have and be thankful that we live in a world where we get to enjoy great works of fiction like Back to the Future, because that is certainly one thing you won’t find in Hill Valley.