It was 31 years ago, but I remember it clearly. I was sitting in a theater between my mom and dad, totally awed by the imagery and music unfolding before me on the screen. A giant wheel-like space station was hovering above the earth, spinning slowly to create its own gravity with centrifugal force. A space shuttle that looked very similar to what we have today rotated in perfect unison as it docked with the space station, all to Johann Strauss' Blue Danube waltz.
It looked so real, so normal, so beautiful, that I could not wait for the year 2001 to arrive. America was deep into the space race in 1968. We would put a man on the moon in 1969. It seemed perfectly logical to assume that by the end of the century (33 long years away) we would be colonizing the moon, have a lavish space station and commercial space shuttle flights. By 2001 I figured visiting outer space wouldn't bemuch different than flying to California from Detroit.
By most accounts the 1968 movie that caused my techno rapture 2001: A Space Odyssey is brilliant science fiction. Made in an era when we considered the Soviet Union our most dangerous enemy, it deftly predicts cordial relations between U.S. and Russian scientists. And the space shuttle is a dead ringer for our real-life Columbia and Discovery.
Despite the genius of director Stanley Kubrick and the help of some brilliant futurists, 2001's vision remains pure fantasy. As we sit at the brink of the new millennium, there are no daily scheduled space shuttle flights for civilians. Our "space station" is a cramped bucket of bolts called MIR. It doesn't create its own gravity and it doesn't have a luxurious Hilton Hotel on board. Our most recent expedition in space, a low-budget Martian probe, crashed because of dumb arithmetic errors.
Why do we always overestimate how far and how fast technology will take us? We have ample evidence - going back 2 million years - that there will always be wars, plagues, strikes, budget cuts, natural disasters, recessions, changing consumer demands and just plain bonehead decisions that ensure man will always take at least one step back for every two he takes forward.
Yet give somebody two minutes to predict the future and they automatically assume that from this year forward humankind will suddenly stop being self-centered, cost-conscious and will have an unlimited budget. Apparently there are no union rules or product liability lawyers in the future that change or impede our steady march. In the future everybody thinks it's more important to have pristine air in densely populated urban areas than to have a car or truck that is practical and affordable. In the future American consumers don't cart kids to soccer practice or tow boats because they're concerned it would make too much carbon dioxide. And in the future, environmental mandates are never changed or rolled back.
You either put up with that blather or you hear a steady "technology will solve all problems" mantra. It comes from cynical con artists to folks with the highest integrity and best intentions.
It goes like this: "Just give this technology/concept/idea 10 or 20 years and it will solve all our problems. I know mankind has been working on this (fill-in-the-blank problem) for the past __months/__years/__decades) but technology now is advancing at such a rapid pace that we should be able to circumvent the laws of nature, the law of supply and demand and any other laws that happen to be standing in our way without too much trouble."
Well, I have been around the block a time or two. I have written stories when others have told me that robots and automation would solve all of our quality and productivity problems. I have heard how diesel and 2-stroke engines would solve our fuel economy problems. I have written a dozen stories about hydrogen-powered cars. I have quoted learned studies that predicted steel would become obsolete and cars and trucks would be made of mostly aluminum and high-tech composites by 1990.
After 20 years of writing about this business I've had a bellyful of the modularized, computer-integrated, outsourced, hydrogen-fueled, run-flat future. This stuff never seems to come true, and I'm both weary and wary of overselling these fantasies to readers.
It's fine to "gleefully suspend disbelief" when you're watching a movie. But when you are a reporter, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is required, even when you are trying to predict what will happen 20 years from now.
It is this focus - and this viewpoint - that I hope will distinguish our efforts in this issue - highlighting the technology of the new Millennium - from others you will see in the coming months.
There are plenty of publications out there predicting the "likely disappearance of the internal combustion engine," and one major business magazine even whimsically predicts a fuel-cell powered SUV that goes from 0 to 60 mph in 5 seconds. If you really believe that stuff, I've got two passenger tickets on the space shuttle I'd like to offer you at a very attractive price ... It leaves next week.