Believe it or not, the concept of the future is a recent phenomenon. Sure, the past offers up one or two whacko visionaries such as Roger Bacon, the 13th-century Somerset friar who foresaw the invention of the motor car, the flying machine, the suspension bridge and the diving suit, and Leonardo Da Vinci, who devised everything from the submarine to the helicopter. But for most of human experience, we have generally been far too busy struggling to stay alive in the present to waste time trying to worry — apart from death and the afterlife — with what comes next, let alone to be dreaming up frivolous executive toys like the jet pack, the mini sub and the 3-D pizza printer.
All that changed in 1965, the year I was born, with the release of the fourth James Bond movie, Thunderball. Sure, there had been stirrings before that: the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; an essay in The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1900, predicting that by the year 2000 trains would travel at 150mph and automobiles would be ‘cheaper than horses’; Hobart’s ‘Funnies’ such as the floating tanks used on D-Day. But Thunderball, you could argue, was the moment when the future really took off, in the scene where Sean Connery flies away on his personal jet pack — and a gazillion and one boys of all ages across the world said to themselves: ‘I want one.’
The bad news is that 50 years on we’re still not quite there: the closest thing currently available is a model — the £100,000 Jetlev Flyer — that propels you skywards with jets of water, but it only takes you up to around 90 feet and is only much use over the sea. But the good news is that it may be no more than three more years before the future finally arrives. In 2017, New Zealand’s Martin Jetpack company hopes to release a model which will enable you to travel for up to 30 minutes at speeds of 50mph as high as 800 feet, with a built-in parachute in case you run out of fuel. So as long as you’ve got $150,000 (plus delivery, taxes and duties) to spare, you’re sorted.
This, unfortunately, is one of the things they forgot to warn us about our futuristic fantasies: to make them come true you’ll need to be as rich as Goldfinger or Blofeld. For example, the DeepFlight Super Falcon — a personal submarine like the one in the 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only — will set you back around £1 million and is designed to be launched from super-yachts.
As befits the symbiotic relationship between movies and future tech, the sub was designed by the same British inventor — Graham Hawkes — who made the one used by Roger Moore in the original film. Before a technology is developed, first it must be imagined, and second a global market’s appetite must be whetted in order to make the product commercially viable. So when, say, we saw all the data flashing up inside evil Arnie’s sunglasses in The Terminator, what seemed like science fiction back in 1984 has now become retail reality in products such as Google Glass.
Google Glass is like having your computer in your field of vision everywhere you go, all the time. If that sounds a nightmare, it probably is: already, one user has been treated for Google Glass withdrawal symptoms. But if it catches on — as unfortunately it probably will — then it may be the only way you’ll ever enjoy a meaningful connection with the parallel universe your children and grandchildren inhabit.
You wear it like a pair of lens-free glasses which enable you, in the corner of your eye, to see the equivalent of a crisp, 25-inch HDTV screen hovering in front of the real world beyond. As well as keeping you up to speed with all your appointments and incoming calls, it has a built-in camera which films everything that crosses your path on voice command. But that’s just the beginning. As happened to the iPhone, Google Glass has inspired thousands of developers to come up with compatible apps. One of them sounds quite like the Babel Fish that Douglas Adams invented in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: it listens to what someone is saying to you in a foreign language and then translates it for you, in real time, on your screen.
Do you really need any of this stuff? Do you even actually want it? I think when such things lay in the realm of fantasy, I probably did, but now they’re here I’m not so sure. I love a gadget in my stocking as much as the next man — you can toy with them and marvel at their shiny cleverness and novelty in the way you can’t, say, with Middle-Aged Man’s Christmas standbys like another cashmere sweater from Uniqlo — but it’s amazing how quickly the thrill wears off. I’ve seen the future — and for me it doesn’t work.