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The future of commuting took a left turn (2009)

Gordon Dickson wrote a piece in the February 15, 2009 issue of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the Paleo-Future blog:

In popular culture, paleofuture refers to the study of what people in the past thought we’d be doing today — flying in cars, eating entire meals in a pill, submitting to self-aware robots.

One clearinghouse for information on the subject, including news clips, movies and other material, is It’s a blog that was started two years ago by Matt Novak of St. Paul, Minn.

In a phone interview last week, Novak, 25, said he was inspired by a childhood visit to Walt Disney’s Epcot Center. "As a kid, I remember thinking these visions of the future were already outdated," he said.

Even so, he was drawn to the optimistic view of many forecasters. "There seemed to be a sincerity there that we may not have anymore about visions of the future," he said.

Visitors to may be surprised to learn that futurists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries accurately predicted ready-cooked meals, cellphones, and even e-mail and online shopping.

A 1900 Ladies Home Journal article correctly forecast that "hot or cold air will be turned on by spigots to regulate the temperature of a house."

But the same article missed the mark on transportation, projecting that by 2000: "There will be no street cars in our large cities. All hurry traffic will be below or high above ground when brought within city limits. It will be confined to broad subways or tunnels . . . or to high trestles with moving sidewalk stairways leading to the top. Cities therefore will be free from all noises."

It was a common mistake. In dozens of articles, the conventional wisdom through the ’50s was that driving in the future would be a happy experience. Highways would be wide open and safe.

How could so many soothsayers be so wrong?

Novak, a marketing guy by trade, figures that prognosticators didn’t understand the consequences of building a car-dependent, oil-addicted society. It wasn’t clear to them that traffic could get so bad and that the cost of construction could rise so quickly that we couldn’t build our way out.

Novak’s own view of the future, at least as it applies to transportation, isn’t so cheery.

"I don’t make predictions, after being absorbed in this world where so many predictions were wrong," he said. "But I dare predict that until I die I will be driving a car or a vehicle operated by fossil fuels."

I tend to think Novak’s wrong. My hunch is that desperation will breed innovation and that a better way to commute will soon emerge and make the 21st century more like that fun, zippy place our ancestors dreamed about.

But I could be wrong.

Either way, if this column gets posted on apaleofutureblog and you’re reading this in 2049, feel free to post a comment below.

Previously on Paleo-Future:


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Reader Comments (2)

Good Web, the car of the future must be economical of fuel, or use alternative fuel ahan than fossil fuels, environmental friendly.

Everyone missed the internet. Hopefully this will enable a level of communication and dialog that will let us think our way out of our mess. Barring that, at least we'll be able to thoroughly document and blog our own demise.

June 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhope for the future

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