It's fun because it's usually wrong. The issues are portrayed, but views of the future are always locked inside their own time.
Take computers, for instance.
Information is at the heart of most business processes, and the inefficiency of this process sparked many of our great dystopic visions. Those untold rows of desks in Metropolis are based on the same false assumptions about the future which marked Marxism and Luddism. A refusal to see problems for what they are, namely a business opportunity.
The first assumption with any new technology's introduction is that it will concentrate wealth and leave people impoverished. This was also true for computers. Even an innocent movie like Desk Set, perhaps the least-known Tracy-Hepburn romance, was driven by the idea that a computer Tracy sold for Hepburn's network research department would leave her without a job.
It's silly, naive. More never leads to less. More leads to more.
When computers were becoming microprocessors, 40 years ago, few believed today's abundance of computing resources was even possible. Digital Equipment CEO Ken Olsen notably questioned whether every home would ever need a PC, but my home today has 7 dedicated, general purpose PCs in it. And most everything else here is computerized, designed by computers, absolutely infected with them.
Your home is probably the same way.
Just as computers in our time eased the fears of a previous generation, so manufacturing transformed the world before that. Each generation's breakthroughs end the previous one's nightmares, and are built on top of that previous generation's breakthroughs.
That's why dreams are important.
Dreams like the original Star Trek series and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 brought the possibilities of computer control to the American mind. They inspired my generation. But when I was a teenager I could not believe I would make my life around computers. Most of my Rice classmates have made their careers in this field. We're all a little surprised at just how profitable it has been.
It happened because of innovations that took place while we were in school. Ethernet. Arpanet. The microprocessor. Souls for new machines.
It's happening again.
Dopp, an engineer 10 miles northwest of my home in Atlanta, recently produced an electrolyzer, a key part for producing hydrogen from electricity or electricity from hydrogen in a fuel cell. He said in a press statement his unit could "produce hydrogen for $2.51 per kilogram, using catalysts that cost just $58 per ounce." Older catalysts are made of platinum, which can cost $1,700 per ounce.
Now multiply Dopp by many thousands. He's just one engineer, working mainly alone. But he has all the processing power and communication power built in the last 40 years to build on.
Dopp has created an exponential change. But it's just one dimension of improvement in one area of alternative energy.
Fortunately there are others. The books of Dopp's venture capitalist, Khosla Ventures, are filled with literally dozens of companies making breakthroughs in what he calls "clean tech." These include Calera, which is making global capture of carbon from power plants possible, and Seeo, which is developing new rechargeable batteries from polymers.
Khosla, who helped co-found Sun Microsystems in the 1980s, is far from the only venture capitalist in this field. There are many others. And there are many, many engineers like Dopp out there, making breakthroughs.
It is possible for an individual like Dopp to make a breakthrough because each of us has access to so much computer power. The Internet lets us keep on top of the state-of-the-art. The processing power on our desk dwarfs what was possible to the Internet's inventors, with their slide rules and desk calculators.
Just as people like Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby were able to design integrated circuits because of transistor breakthroughs made 20 years earlier at Bell Labs, and the birth of those circuits was made possible by the growth of radio technology in the early 1930s, so today's research rides on what microprocessors and networks made possible.
Meet Michael Wong. His lab at Rice treats nano-particles as building blocks from which it assembles useful materials for energy and environmental applications. Back in 2007 I wrote about his work with quantum dots, which may create a revolution in solar energy because they are far more efficient than other materials.
Now multiply Wong's lab by 1,000. Because every major university, not just here but around the world, is aware of the opportunities in solar power. And every major venture capital firm, not just Khosla's, wants to make money with it.
Why aren't we seeing these breakthroughs reflected in the marketplace? Why are we still seeing windmills as high tech?
One reason is that improvements are coming so rapidly that they're obsolete before they can reach the market. Another reason is there aren't standards for solar panels that will let you swap them out, year by year. And the efficiency of such panels -- the time it takes for you to break even with them -- isn't yet compelling enough to make them a mass market.
But that is coming, and soon. And once we cross the line, the gap between resource and device costs will only grow, in favor of device energy. In 1970 we were 7 years from the birth of the personal computer industry, 10 years from the introduction of the IBM PC, and 25 years from the Web being spun into something anyone can use.
We can make this happen faster, because of the breakthroughs in the previous paragraph. Not just the computers, and not just the computer networks, but because of the university and venture capital infrastructure built in the creation of these industries.
Can we accelerate this change even more? Yes, we can. We can create more incentive for growing industries, at the expense of those which are not growing. Our government can do more to publicize these advances, even though they're not happening as publicly as the Apollo moon landings.
We, as individuals, can also start changing our attitudes, from hopelessness over the present to excitement over the future. We can spread this to our children, and let them know that abundance is on the way, that a new world is being built and that they can play a part in that building, that our future is not dystopic but as wide and as beautiful as the world of Star Trek.
Do for your kids what your parents did for you. Point their dreams skyward.