When it comes to predicting the future, Americans long have been obsessed with transportation. It seems we don’t like to sit still, and we really want to get where we’re going faster and cheaper.
It’s a thought that has long captured imaginations on New Year’s Eve, so it may not be too jarring to read this editorial from the St. Louis Star and Times, published Jan. 2, 1917:
“Discussions at the convention of the American Association for the Advance of Science, in New York, brought forth an astounding promise for the future. Passenger travel at a speed of 500 miles an hour is the new promise. The plan is to shoot passengers, each one in an individual reclining chair, through vacuum tubes.”
It may be the word “shoot” that makes that paragraph hard to take. The thought of being shot through a tube, or through anything, for that matter, at 500 mph would be enough to make many people opt for the bus.
Still, you have to admire the imagination and forward thinking. This was the brainchild of Professor Boris P. Weinberg of the Imperial University of Petrograd, who claimed already to have invented the tube, during a world war, no less.
He did this at a time, mind you, when pneumatic tubes were used solely to transport small objects, such as envelopes or other parcels of mail, throughout large buildings.
Which makes that time pretty much like this time, except that we encounter those tubes mostly at drive-through banking facilities.
I write about this because predicting the future is an unavoidable pastime this time of year, and because we rarely understand what this says about us.
A casual observer from outer space might note that Americans spend most of the year, in the media, on Facebook and in other ways, complaining that the world is twirling downward somewhere along the flush cycle of a cosmic toilet. From terrorism to sexual harassment to football players refusing to kneel and politicians intent on destroying the planet, we made life in 2017 seem grim.
But on and around the New Year’s holiday we dance and sing in Time’s Square and at other parties as if the future never looked so bright. We also write resolutions that, by definition, assume life will continue to be fairly good.
Even if we don’t sound like it most of the time, we are incurable optimists. The story of tube travel 101 years ago noted the existence of airplanes and submarines and said, “The human race has been mistaken too often in branding predictions as foolish to scoff at any idea a scientist chooses to offer.”
That sort of optimism is a good thing. It has, at least in the long aggregate trend line of the past couple of centuries, become self-fulfilling.
One of the reasons we have such trouble accurately predicting the future is that we tend to have trouble understanding the present. The future already exists in the barely detectable manifestations of someone’s imagination and optimism — just as it once existed in Steve Job’s garage — but our attention tends to be diverted by transitory distractions.
As 2018 gets ready to dawn, many of us again are focused on transportation, wondering whether this will be the year self-driving cars make some sort of technological leap into our everyday lives.
I wish I had the answer. All I can tell you is that the future tends to travel at its own pace, and that pace often is much more deliberate than even the people with the imagination and optimism would believe.
Oh, one more thing. It also is as relentless as the people with ideas.
Which is why Elon Musk, Richard Branson and others are still working on what they call a “hyperloop,” or a train that would travel through a sealed tube at a speed of maybe 700 mph.
The website gearbrain.com predicts tunnels will be dug in 2018. Perhaps by 2019, we’ll be ready to be shot in our reclining chairs.
Take a tip from the folks in 1917. Look around at all the miracles that once were unimaginable before you scoff.