Futurama

When we focus on the success stories of technology’s evolution, innovation can seem an inevitable and linear process. But that’s only half the truth. Behind every technology is a sea of experiments, misfires and detours, along with predictions that often wildly (and entertainingly) miss their mark, though on occasion can be eerily accurate. In 'Futurama', Fanta Voogd collects dozens of visions of the future, from 335 BC to the recent past, and paints a truer picture of technology’s whimsical course.

Non-Fiction
Original title
Futurama
Author
Fanta Voogd

Each chapter begins with a quote drawn from a wide array of thinkers, scientists, artists and dreamers, including such names as Aristotle, Roger Bacon, Adam Smith, Christiaan Huygens, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Jane Loudon, Ray Kurzweil, Rachel Carson and Douglas Engelbart, as well as better and lesser known newspapers. By focusing on the expectations that accompanied different technologies, Voogd is able to show that many of these have much older histories than one might assume. Or that they failed to meet expectations and disappeared before maturing – sometimes to re-emerge years or even centuries later.

Some of these visions are bizarrely ahead of their time. Aristotle, for example, dreamed of robots in the fourth century BC. But also ideas like hydrogen-fuelled cars, nanotechnology, personal computers and FaceTime circulated long before their actual ‘invention’. Other predictions, in turn, were spectacularly wrong. Arthur C. Clarke proclaimed the end of the wheel upon the appearance of the hovercraft. The economist Roger Babson was right about the financial crash of 1929 – less so about kerosine-based food. Plenty of ideas failed by chance, while a number were smothered by industry, such as virtually eternal lightbulbs (early 1900s), or, like electric cars (first invented in 1835!), failed to catch on for not being as cool as rival technologies. Still other predictions seem plain wacky from today’s perspective. Asimov imagined that by now humanity would be living on the seabed. And what to make of the steam-punk fantasy of the pneumatic train, a precursor to the Hyperloop?

Whether sprouting from the head of a genius, or – more often than not – from simple luck, these visions of the future speak to their present, reflecting the anxieties of the Cold War or, say, the optimism of the Industrial Revolution. Certain hopes or fears prove to be of all times: take Tertullian of Carthage, who warned of global overpopulation nearly two millennia ago. And even when successful, technologies can fail to have the imagined impact. Compare Concorde and the Boeing 747.

Written with a gentle humour, Futurama is an entertaining and revelatory testament to the essential bond between art, science and technology.

‘If 'Futurama' demonstrates one thing it is that the ability to dream is the motor driving scientific progress.’

New Scientist

‘'Futurama' is an immensely readable collection of ninety-three sharp-witted pieces to inform, stimulate, entertain, and bathe in the romanticism of the futurism of old.’

Trouw
Fanta Voogd
Fanta Voogd (b. 1961) started his career as a journalist at De Waarheid, a Dutch communist daily. Currently he is affiliated with the De Ingenieur, a monthly magazine on tech and policy, where he specializes in the history of technology.
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