Forget the big, obvious things like Internet search, GPS, smartphones or molecularly targeted cancer treatments. Compared with the real 21st century, old projections of The Future offered a paucity of fundamentally new technologies. They included no laparoscopic surgery or effective acne treatments or ADHD medications or Lasik or lithotripsy — to name just a few medical advances that don’t significantly affect life expectancy…
Nor was much business innovation evident in those 20th century visions. The glamorous future included no FedEx or Wal- Mart, no Starbucks or Nike or Craigslist — culturally transformative enterprises that use technology but derive their real value from organization and insight. Nobody used shipping containers or optimized supply chains. The manufacturing revolution that began at Toyota never happened. And forget about such complex but quotidian inventions as wickable fabrics or salad in a bag.
The point isn’t that people in the past failed to predict all these innovations. It’s that people in the present take them for granted.
Technologists who lament the “end of the future” are denigrating the decentralized, incremental advances that actually improve everyday life. And they’re promoting a truncated idea of past innovation: economic history with railroads but no department stores, radio but no ready-to-wear apparel, vaccines but no consumer packaged goods, jets but no plastics.
I wonder if another way to categorize this would be to say that many of the changes in recent decades have been more about quality of life, not significantly different way of doing things or viewing the world (outside of the Internet). Quality of life is harder to measure but if we take the long view, the average life of a middle-class American today contains improvements over decades before. Also, is this primarily a history or perspective issue? History tends to be told (and written) by people in charge who often focus on the big people and moments. It is harder to track, understand, and analyze what the “average” person experiences day to day.
I can imagine some might see Postrel’s argument and suggest we are deluded by some of these quality of life improvements and we forget about what we have given up. While some of this might be mythologizing about a golden era that never quite was, it is common to hear such arguments about the Internet and Facebook: it brings new opportunities but fundamentally changes how humans interact with each other and machines (see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle). We now have Amazon and Walmart but have lost any relationships with small business owners and community shops. We may have Starbucks coffee but it may not be good for us.