I love “futurism” but I like it even better when it’s being seen in the rear view mirror. That’s when it gets really interesting for me.
A few years back I re-read most of the 70s and 80s books by Alvin Toffler, futurist author of such best-selling and influential works hailing “the shape of things to come” as Future Shock, The Third Wave and Power Shift. It’s simply amazing how right on the money Toffler was (for the most part) and his classic, now literally decades out-of-date books are still just as much fun to read to see what he got wrong, as much to see what he got right, and why.
In 1988, The Los Angeles Times Magazine published an ambitious, 16 page cover story written by Nicole Yorkin that drew from interviews she had conducted with a few dozen futurists trying to project how people would live in Los Angeles in the year 2013. They got the great Syd Mead, the “visual futurist” and conceptual artist behind Aliens, Blade Runner and Tron—an inspired choice—to illustrate it.
How much of the piece got it right is now, 25 years later, the subject of a graduate engineering class taught at USC by Prof. Jerry Lockenour:
Lockenour provided his 25 students with electronic copies of the magazine and they divvied up the articles to determine which of the 1988 predictions came true. To their surprise, the students — some of whom weren’t even born when Yorkin’s look into the future was published — found that many predictions have become reality.
Yorkin’s experts had foreseen smart cars that would drive themselves by 2013. The luxury cars that she wrote about zipping eastbound in the 118 Freeway’s “electro lanes” were outfitted with “inductive couplers” — something that isn’t on the market yet. But the technology exists: Google engineers are testing driverless cars that are equipped with a laser radar system.
“You find some cars that will help park themselves now, so parts of it have already happened,” said Mohammadali Parsian, a 23-year-old USC student from Iran. “Electro lanes? It makes sense…. It takes 25 or 30 years for new things to come into place.”
Classmate Chiraag Dodhia, 24, of Kenya, was also startled by how many of the 1988 transportation predictions were on target. “Things like every car will have computers. Back then it wasn’t common for cars to have diagnostic features and low tire-pressure alarms,” he said.
Other things forecast by the magazine — magnetic induction that lifts cars off the road, car computers that talk to other cars’ computers — may be on the horizon, Dodhia said.
The 1988 forecasts saw a high-tech revolution occurring in public schools by 2013. There would be neighborhood satellite campuses of about 300 pupils with high-resolution computer screens for walls and ceilings. Desks would have built-in computers operated by smart cards.
“Her prediction was not that far off,” said graduate student Nikolaos Vagias, 26, of Greece. “We don’t have smart cards, but we have smartphones and tablets with all these applications. Just like the article said, the price of computers is going down so every kid can afford one.”
Hitendra Mistry, a 25-year-old student from India, noted that even Lockenour’s course is live-streamed to students elsewhere through USC’s Distance Educational Network.
Walter Glaeser, a 50-year-old Boeing systems engineer who lives in St. Louis, is one of nine students taking the class through the network. Some of the magazine’s predictions were far-fetched, he said, but then again, “I’ve never actually met any of my USC professors face to face in the time I’ve been pursuing my master’s degree.”
Some of the original 1988 article is a little locally focused to be of much interest to non Los Angelenos, but man, oh man is it fascinating to those of us who live here to see how much of if they—especially Syd Mead, who once called science fiction “reality ahead of schedule”—got right. If the image on the cover didn’t predict today’s gleaming, overly-developed area near the Staples Center in downtown LA with eerie prescience—downtown was exactly like Mad Max back in 1988, one of the worst, most insane skidrow areas in all of America—then I don’t know what would have!
Ironically, it was the Los Angeles Times Magazine itself that didn’t make it to 2013, as the magazine was shuttered in 2012.