The caption to the illustration reads “Because everything in her home is waterproof, the housewife of 2000 can do her daily cleaning with a hose.” Frilly aprons were clearly thought to be an immutable feature of domestic bliss.

There is nothing quite so dated as past ways of imagining the future. Perhaps unavoidably we seize on what seems to be of the future but in our present – and extrapolate mercilessly. Given the consistency with which that becomes ridiculous not very many years later, it’s pretty clear that that is a bad technique.

The seven year old – or at least the six year old as he mostly then was – liked watching original episodes of Thunderbirds. Everyone knows how easy it is to spot the strings, some of the other things which stand out watching them forty years on are a bit more subtle. Everything is nuclear powered, down to trains and tanks, and essentially that is not a problem: it doesn’t on the whole occur to the baddies that that brings vulnerabilities which are worth exploiting. International air travel is not only supersonic (of course) and nuclear powered, it is in luxuriously appointed cabins where clearly everybody travels first class. And that, of course, is not a failure in technological prediction, it is a failure in social prediction – Ryanair was clearly not foreseeable in the mid sixties.

Another example is an article from Popular Mechanic of 1950 on “Miracles of the Next Fifty Years”, discussed by Red Herring a couple of years ago in an article which distinguishes two distinct problems. The first is uncritical extrapolation of change:

Its all-plastic, shiny surface future is one that takes 1950 styling trends and extrapolates them into the future. It’s the kind of future in which tail fins have grown and grown, reaching astronomical proportions and becoming the vehicle. The future is today’s coolest stuff covering the world.

The second, much deeper rooted problem is uncritical extrapolation of the absence of change:

In the Popular Mechanics future, Mom would stay at home with the robots, hosing down the house after Dad had flown off to work in his personal helicopter. Now, if there’s any single change in the last 50 years that’s most powerfully affected everything about home life, it’s been the wholesale movement of women out of the house, and the emergence of women as economically independent members of their households. Nothing about the house has been unaffected by women working outside it. We don’t have plastic furniture and floors, but the widespread acceptance of prepared foods, the popularity of home security systems, the transformation of the minivan into the family living room — none of it would have happened had June stayed home, waiting for Ward, Wally, and the Beaver.

It’s easy to focus on the flash; it’s harder to see the slower, deeper changes that will really have a profound impact on the way we live.

There is a considerably heavier examination of this phenomenon by a Stanford academic, but with a neat summing up of the two kinds of error:

the first sort of error is in seeing the future as being insufficiently like the present, and that is relatively easy to correct for; you just imagine the future furnished like the room you are in. Whereas the second sort of error involves seeing the future as insufficiently different from the present, and this we can correct for only by a determined act of imagination: forty-five years from now gender roles will be different … how?

All of which is by way of an excuse for this indescribable 1975 ad for Braniff Air about flying in the future.

In all the flummery, exactly the same analysis works perfectly. In the supersonic jet of the incredible future, there is a wild choice of three films – and the seats rearrange themselves to put you in front of the screen with the one you want to see. Just how much longer will we have to wait?