Where is My Jetpack? - Flashback Week


All photos courtesy of jurvetson.

Written By: Margaret Jacobi

As kids, everyone remembers watching Back to the Future for the first time and wondering if time travel really could be possible, reading 1984 and envisioning a dystopian future, and wondering if we someday could yield real light sabers. Such fanciful predictions are not a new concept.

Since the birth of intelligent man, innovators have struggled to conceive of and actualize all the visions of their imaginations. Some of these dreams have materialized; some are still being developed , while others have fallen by the wayside.

“Seeing The Jetsons, these early shows, and these ideas that never came to be, well you have to ask, ‘Where’s our jet pack? Why don’t we have these robot maids helping us out?’” says Jonathan Dregni, co-author of the book Follies of Science: 20th century visions of our Fantastic Future, “If you recall all these old Popular Sciences and Science Mechanics from the ‘20s to the ‘50s; we’re supposed to be living that now, or so we thought when we were growing up, and they haven’t come true. Well, where are these things, what happened to these ideas?”

The drive to answer this question and compare what was the predicted future to the present is what led Jonathan and his brother Eric Drengi to write Follies of Science. Their book, published in 2006, explores some of the fantastic ideas of the past from robots to radium suppositories.

So, why is the world so different from the futuristic prophecies of decades past, what shifted? The two both agreed that even in the past six years since the book’s release, much has changed in the field of technology.

“I think some of the things we missed, or at least I didn’t think or understand even five years ago, was the power of the Internet and how connected we all will and can be,” says Jonathan,  “and that’s something that brings a lot of hope. It does take a lot of energy to run this thing, but it’s all inter-connective, we’re able to educate ourselves and make decisions on things that we were never able to before.”

Perhaps the dawn of what is now being called the Digital or Information age is the basis of this shift from new physical products to digital. Characterized by the ever-developing simplification of communication, our generation seems to be focused on more universal access to information rather than radical new technologies that stir up established markets. It seems most of the new products of our generation, aside from some of Apple’s iProducts, are improvements on already established goods. The result is a market that expects new models to come out in a matter of years.

“The new iPad 3 was released, and you buy it, but you know next year there’s going to be another version of it.” says Eric, “It might not be appreciated as much because they become obsolete so fast. I mean, you have a computer that’s five years old now and it’s ancient history at this point.”

Jonathan also used cars as a curious example of how innovation of physical products may have been overshadowed. While the vehicles’ features have developed throughout the years, cars themselves still rely on the traditional prototype of years past. A great example Jonathan cited is how the concept of electric cars is almost as old as the gas-powered automobile, even though the  hybrid cars are still not commonplace in the market. The electric car’s mediocre sales numbers exemplify the difficulty developers face when investing in research to commercialize new, more expensive goods in an already over-saturated market. Though, outside of the implications of the Digital Age, the Green Movement has significantly diverted modern ideas of progress away from a future of jetpacks and frivolous energy-consuming luxuries. In other words, how do we rationalize the development of robot maids while facing the impending effects of global warming? Under this light, more practical technologies on the horizon appear more worthy of prediction.

Alluding to the progress Google is making, both Dregni brothers foresee that automatic cars will be the next revolution in transportation technology. The daunting reality of conservation and environmental responsibility undoubtedly reshapes the goals of scientists today. Understanding the effects of waste might make some of our past dreams seem like irresponsible technologies to pursue, but the fact remains that fresh ideas are still essential for the evolution of humankind.

“I think one of the most important things is imagination,” says Eric, “You know, we’re expecting all of these inventions to make a better living, but we have to imagine how we could be in the future. Looking back on the past, how do we want our future to be? We are the ones who determine what it can be.”

Call it frivolous, but most people would still like to have a jet pack one of these days.