Happy Back To The Future Day!

Doc and Marty are currently emerging from the DeLorean…

Written in 1981 and finally released four years later, Back to the Future is a classic slice of 1980s cinema. With its depictions of skateboards and the iconic stainless-steel DeLorean, it positively oozes Eighties kitsch when viewed through the cynical prism of modern life.

Many Back to the Future fans will be aware that today – October 21st 2015 – was the date Doc travelled to at the end of the movie, while the less-celebrated (though arguably superior) sequel also paid a visit to this present day. It’s fascinating to see how computing has changed during the intervening three decades, and also to consider whether the world panned out the way Back to the Future suggested it might…

Firstly, the flying cars and hoverboards of Back to the Future II never came to pass; nor do we have self-adjusting (or self-drying) clothes. However, some elements of Robert Zemeckis’s glimpses into the future did come true. Video phones and moving billboards are common sights nowadays, as are computer games operated by hand movements rather than controllers. More presciently, the film’s depiction of newspapers with self-changing headlines anticipated today’s online news websites, where headlines are electronically updated as new stories occur.

When you consider that Back to the Future was filmed at a time when PCs were bulky monochrome machines powered by text-based disk operating systems – outclassed as gaming devices even by the eight-bit Sinclair Spectrum – it’s remarkable how many elements of the future were correctly predicted. Indeed, BTTF and its sequels had a higher hit rate in terms of predictions than British television series Tomorrow’s World, which reported in 1985 that digital cameras of the future would use rolls of film to store their images. It also claimed telescopic tubes might be used to slide out of high-rise buildings in the event of fire, and that high-frequency sound waves could prevent pigeons from landing in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Despite the obvious failings of futurology programmes and movies, it would have been impossible in 1985 to anticipate the internet. The invention of the World Wide Web was still six years away, even though the basic principle had existed for decades in the form of the American military’s ARPANET communications network. Only 13 per cent of UK households had any form of home computer in 1985, and 19 per cent of properties lacked a landline. The concept of mobile internet would have seemed inconceivable at a time when short-distance CB radios were considered cutting-edge, and it would be another four years before satellite broadcasting began to challenge the long-established oligopoly of the UK’s four terrestrial television channels.

Here and now in 2015, it’s equally difficult to predict where technology will take us by 2045. Experts predict our kitchens will be able to generate food using sophisticated hydroponics and 3D printers, while motion-sensing cameras are likely to replace conventional interfaces – there are already TV sets that can be controlled by pointing a finger in lieu of a remote control. Self-cleaning fabrics and holographic screens are tipped to become domestic staples, and we may even see sentient artificial intelligence devices that can operate our homes and manage our lifestyles. With self-driving cars and self-repairing electronics not far away, the current rate of technological advancement should continue accelerating much faster than Doc’s lethargic DeLorean ever did…

What will our world look like 30 years from now? Let us know your predictions @VPSNET.

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