The Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is now hosting an exhibit entitled "Transportation Futuristics: Visionary Designs in Transportation Engineering." The exhibit -- which runs from July 6 through September 30, 2004 at the Bernice Lynn Brown Gallery -- is accompanied by a "virtual gallery," which puts many of the illustrations online. The site covers autos, monorails, hover vehicles, and more -- the range of this bestiary of imagined vehicles is simultaneously amusing and staggering. While the fevered transportation dreams of the early part of the 20th century are well-represented, the exhibit also includes some much-more-recent offerings, from the Moller Sky Car to various manifestations of "Personal Rapid Transit" and "Intelligent Transportation Systems." The one thing each of these transit designs have in common is that they never really managed to revolutionize transportation -- they were all, to varying degrees, futures that never were.
For those of us who make thinking about how the future could unfold our profession, exhibitions like "Transportation Futuristics" hold an almost fetishistic fascination. While some of the designs featured in the show are clearly hand-waving "wouldn't it be great if..." sketches, many are the result of long hours of debate, research, and informed speculation. They were not offered up in expectation of failure. These vehicles and systems were considered to be plausible -- or at least possible -- extrapolations into a future yet to unfold.
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Some futurists study these failed visions in hopes of figuring out what subtle element was missing, which line of speculation had the broken link, so as to avoid making the same mistakes. In most cases, the problems arise not from errors in physics or engineering, but in the overly-simplistic -- or simply ignorant -- social and economic speculations. Those promising personal helicopters, for example (a promise which ran rampant in American culture in the late 1940s/early 1950s), never seemed to ask how likely it was that people would accept heli-cars crashing with anything near the frequency of auto accidents. And, as the exhibit points out, the proposed underground maglev train between NYC and LA would be so expensive that the entire population of each city would have to use it every day for the finances to work out.
But social and economic projections are far trickier than technology extrapolation. We don't live in a world where psychohistory works. The approaches most often used to shape social forces -- namely, advertising and politics -- are often little better than alchemy.
If some futurists examine these sorts of failed speculations for warning signs of imperfect methods, others -- like me -- embrace them as reminders to avoid both hubris and shame. I love looking at futures that never were as stories of how easy it is to be wrong, but also as stories of how easy it is to be wrong for the right reasons. 1950s futurists foresaw skies filled with personal helicopters instead of crowded commuter jets not just because they didn't think about safety and risks, but because they didn't -- or didn't want to -- think about a future where people would willingly put up with the ceaseless tiny humiliations of modern air travel.
In the end, even if we don't live in a world of monorails, pneumatic subways, turbojet-powered cars and hypersonic SSTs, we do live in a world that is able to imagine these possibilities. The visions inspire designers and citizens alike. Triggered by these speculations, we inevitably shape and reshape the real world of compromise and consequence.
These designs do not tell us of the future that came to pass -- but the future in which we live would not have been possible without them.
(Link found via near near future)