In 1968, a largely ignored science fiction writer named James R. Berry penned a strikingly poignant article entitled ’40 Years in the Future’. First published in the magazine Mechanix Illustrated, his 1,500 word futuristic vision of the Twenty First Century paints a picture of a highly sophisticated society, dominated by technological advancement.
Berry’s predictions of a world featuring driverless cars, tablet-like devices, inter-planetary vacations, and teleshopping inspired me to take a step back and compare his decades old vision of a technologically saturated, highly urbanised society with the actual present.
Image credit: Top Design Mag
The Future of the Past
In the late 1960s the western world was in the midst of a social revolution. Hippiedom was in full swing, and youth movements across the free world were rising up against the establishment with a rebellious verve that forever changed the status quo.
Yet while this period of social revolution is endlessly romanticised as a time of great social advancement, the world was concurrently being transformed by substantial technological developments such as manned space travel, colour television, and the birth of the internet. And it was against this backdrop of civil unrest and technological advancement that the world rediscovered its love of science fiction.
Between 1965 and 1968 a host of the world’s most beloved works of science fiction were released, including: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1964), Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). These fantastic works of imagination were devoured by young audiences fascinated by technology, and thirsty for narratives set in a future where man ruled his environment by means of technological invention. But while many of these authors remain household names, it’s a forgotten, largely unknown writer whose vision of the future I’d like to share.
His name is James R. Berry, and while he primarily wrote pulpy teen sci-fi for the bulk of his career, I recently came across an article of his that in many ways proves even more prophetic than the great works of the genre.
Image credit: Mechanix Illustrated
The Future of Transport
When it comes to the future of transport I think it’s safe to say that many of us Gen-Y science fiction lovers have been dreaming of driverless cars ever since we first saw Arnie being chauffeured in Total Recall. In 1968, Berry too had such a vision:
“You slide into your sleek, two-passenger air-cushion car, press a sequence of buttons and the national traffic computer notes your destination, figures out the current traffic situation and signals your car to slide out of the garage. Hands free, you sit back and begin to read the morning paper – which is flashed on a flat TV screen over the car’s dashboard. Tapping a button changes the page. The car accelerates to 150 mph in the city’s suburbs, then hits 250 mph in less built-up areas, gliding over the smooth plastic road.”
While much of the detail in Berry’s vision – such as the plastic roads and the 400 kmph speeds – is far from reality, the driverless car will almost certainly be commercially available by 2030. With Mercedes-Benz revealing its stunning “autonomous” vehicle prototype, the F 015 Luxury in Motion “visionary concept” car at the annual International Consumer Electronics show, the future of motoring is certainly driverless.
The Future of Domestic Life
Despite the fact that technology has made our domestic lives increasingly easier since the invention of domestic electricity in the 1930s, we are yet to reach the stage where homes are self-maintaining. In ’40 Years in the Future’, James Berry envisioned such progress:
“Homes are practically self-maintaining. Electrostatic precipitators clean the air and climatizers maintain the temperature and humidity at optimum levels. Robots are available to do housework and other simple chores. New materials for siding and interiors are self-cleaning and never peel, chip or crack.”
Image credit: Top Design Mag
Whilst robotics engineers are still yet to successfully develop a housekeeping robot capable of realising the full extent of Berry’s vision, mobile manipulator robots capable of doing our housework for us have been in development for some time, namely at Tokyo University (the Information and Robot Technology Research Initiative) and the Human Centered Robotics Lab at the University of Washington.
The Future of Money
At the time of writing ’40 Years in the Future’ bank issue credit cards were already in existence, but cash was still king. However fast track to 2003, to a world with more than 1 billion credit cards in circulation across the globe, and suddenly many of us are using plastic to make even the most minor of purchases. Despite the fact that he more than likely didn’t even own a credit card, James R. Berry foresaw the demise of cash:
“Money has all but disappeared. Employers deposit salary checks directly into their employees’ accounts. Credit cards are used for paying all bills.”
However, fast forward to 2015 and money has once again been re-imagined – and this time well beyond Berry’s futuristic vision – with the development and wide adoption of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. In fact, ever since it was first developed in 2009, use of the world’s first decentralised cryptocurrency has grown exponentially. As of January 11, 2015, there were more than US$ 4.1 billion worth of bitcoins in circulation across the globe, and as this wonderful explainer video from The Guardian highlights, Bitcoin is a potential game changer for the global economy.
The Future of Shopping
The way that we shop and buy consumer goods has radically changed over the last ten years. Long gone are the days when we had to schedule time to physically visit a bricks and mortar store to pick up the things that we wanted. Across the world online shopping has grown exponentially, and Australia is no exception.
According to the National Australia Bank’s latest figures, “Australia’s online retail spending increased to $16.19 billion for the year to October 2014, or by 11.9% annually.” But when James R. Berry penned his prophecies, the world’s first personal computer from Olivetti, the Programma 101, had only just been invented; the internet hadn’t even been conceived, and teleshopping was a distant fantasy:
Image credit: Computer History Museum
“Computers not only keep track of money, they make spending it easier. TV-telephone shopping is common. To shop, you simply press the numbered code of a giant shopping center. You press another combination to zero in on the department and the merchandise in which you are interested. When you see what you want, you press a number that signifies “buy,” and the household computer takes over, places the order, notifies the store of the home address and subtracts the purchase price from your bank balance.”
The Future of Study
With 65% of higher education institutions seeing online education as critical to their long-term strategy, and more 25 million students in the US tipped to be studying online by 2015, tertiary education has been revolutionised by the internet. With this in mind, James R. Berry’s predictions regarding the future of study were pretty well on the money:
“Most schooling – from first grade through college – consists of programmed TV courses or lectures via closed circuit. Students visit a campus once or twice a week for personal consultations or for lab work that has to be done on site. Progress of each student is followed by computer, which assigns end term marks on the basis of tests given throughout the term.”
The Future of Vacation
For the great majority of us, all of our vacations in the foreseeable future will take place here on planet Earth. However, for those cashed-up enough to afford the $250,000 price tag, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is a game changer when it comes to vacations. That said, the SpaceShipTwo’s most recent test flight on October 31 (which fatally crashed into the Mojave Desert after only 11 seconds of flight) wasn’t exactly a good advertisement for recreational space travel. In this regard, our good friend James R. Berry saw us being slightly more advanced than we currently are:
“A typical vacation in 2008 is to spend a week at an undersea resort, where your hotel room window looks out on a tropical underwater reef, a sunken ship or an ancient, excavated city. Available to guests are two- and three-person submarines in which you can cruise well-marked underwater trails… Another vacation is a stay on a hotel satellite. The rocket ride to the satellite and back, plus the vistas of earth and moon, make a memorable vacation jaunt.”
Image credit: Top Design Mag
The Future of Health
Finally, we come to health. An area where technological advancement literally saves lives. Increasingly, technology is playing a role in almost all healthcare processes, from patient registration to data monitoring, from lab tests to self-care tools. Yet despite some amazing breakthroughs in stem cell research and the launch of Calico, Google’s latest futuristic venture that “aims to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives”, we fell short of fulfilling James R. Berry’s utopian vision:
“Medical research has guaranteed that most babies born in the 21st century will live long and healthy lives. Heart disease has virtually been eliminated by drugs and diet. If hearts or other major organs do give trouble, they can be replaced with artificial organs.”
For people living in developed countries, most babies are guaranteed a long life. But despite massive improvements in healthcare across the world, people living in the world’s least developed nations are far from guaranteed a long and healthy life. However, as Hans Rosling’s fascinating presentation, New Insights on Poverty, highlights: the twentieth century witnessed the most rapid decline in mortality in human history.
As James R. Berry rightly predicted, the reach of technological innovation grew exponentially throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and into the Twenty First, changing all industries as it evolved. Yet for most of us these changes are taken for granted, and quickly normalised without much thought. For science fiction writers and futurists – those among us who step back and truly ponder these massive changes – the rapid growth of technological development is a much greater question. In fact, for folks like James R. Berry, our obsession with controlling our environment by means of technology is what defines us as humans beings.