TITLE The Future: A Retrospective BGCOLOR #EEEEEE RSS rss.xml
by Leonard Richardson
In May 2007 I found a book in a used bookstore called Future Stuff, by Malcolm Abrams and Harriet Bernstein. It was published in 1989, and it described about 275 consumer products that:
...should be in your supermarket, hardware store, pharmacy, department store, or otherwise available by the year 2000.
It was based on interviews with the people who were working on these products. It made concrete predictions, with dates and estimated prices. The predictions were more or less wrong.
This is what happens when you predict the future. What I didn't expect was the sheer variety of ways in which the predictions were wrong. Most books of predictions I've seen come from the 1960s or earlier, and their predictions have no relationship to today's reality. But when I started looking up the technologies described in Future Stuff, I found that almost all of them do exist in some form or another.
Some of them exist more or less as described ("Flat TV"). Some exist more or less as described but nobody buys them ("Vending Machine French Fries"). Some are too expensive to be practical ("Privacy Windows"). Some were big hits in totally different fields than the ones they were marketed to ("Binocular Glasses", "Self-Stirring Saucepan"). Many exist in greatly improved form thanks to mobile phones ("Watch Pager") and the Internet ("Weather Cube", "The Guerilla Information Network")—two technologies that existed when Future Stuff was published, yet which don't seem to be mentioned at all.
Some achieved success by abandoning the high-tech trappings with which Future Stuff burdens them ("Telephone Smart Cards", "Solar-Powered Cooker"). Some made a fortune ("Impotency Pills") for someone other than the person mentioned in Future Stuff. Some failed because of tragic flaws ("Frozen Beverage Mug", "Non-Fattening Fat"), others for contingent reasons of history ("Digital Tape Measure", "Self-Weeding Lawn"). Some remain pipe dreams today ("The Flying Car"). And some ("Mood Suit") were just ridiculous.
This website is an audit of 1989's future. It ran from June 10, 2007 to March 11, 2008, presenting one Future Stuff entry per day. I found out what happened to the predicted products, and to the people and companies who were going to bring them to you. I dug up the appropriate patents and old articles about the products.
All the amounts in Future Stuff are 1989 dollars. I give
inflation-adjusted amounts for rough comparison, usually in 2007 (2006
actually, but who's counting) dollars. To keep things from getting too
confusing, I qualify each amount of money with a year: $10/1989 is ten
dollars in 1989 money, and it's worth about $16/2007. I'm indebted to
Calculator for making this information easy to access. One thing
you'll see over and over again is a race between inflation and Moore's
Law. Moore's Law wins big time.
Some people don't really want to read reviews of all 275 Future Stuff entries, so I picked twenty of my favorites as a sort of sampler.
Every item in Future Stuff has three pieces of information associated with it. I've reproduced them in a table for each item: