A sumptuously produced book (though the idea of having a dust cover which turns into a poster does not really work), Gregory Benford’s The Wonderful Future That Never Was is a collection of some of the best, worst and strangest predictions for future technology published over the years in the pages of the American magazine Popular Mechanics.
A few wider themes come out from the collection, including the move during the twentieth century from concern over there not being enough food to concern over people eating too much, and the way in which predictions about improvements in flying technology have consistently oversold its potential. Issues of safety, practicality, noise and cost mean we still do not have the sort of personal flying machines that often come up in a myriad of forms from personal helicopters in each garage through to jet packs and anti-gravitational devices.
As the book briefly discusses, a common trend is that even when predictions have been correct at a technical level, they have tended to under-estimate their knock-on social effects. (A good, different example is from the technical predictions over the future of newspapers where examples such as The Guardian‘s newspaper of the future have in many respects turned out right, such as over personalisation and direct delivery to the reader, but they missed the way in which the business would be massively reshaped.)
A few of the predictions have thankfully not come to pass, including the idea of turning discarded underwear into candy, and others show how much the world has changed, as with the prediction of the future of nuclear power which handily included instructions on how to build a lightweight portable radiation detector so readers could head out to the countryside and go prospecting for uranium.
The book shows glimpses of a serious side – we can, after all, learn much from how previous predictions have gone wrong – and only occasionally pokes light-hearted fun at some past predictions. However, this is really neither a book for laughs nor for serious thought. Rather it is for gentle entertainment reminding us what the future used to look like.