The Future: A Retrospective

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 The Inflation 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.

Best-Of

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.

  1. Virtual World
  2. The Electric Train Attaché
  3. Interactive Game Network
  4. Digital Audiotapes and Decks
  5. Holograph Phone
  6. Robot Dog
  7. Electronic Book
  8. Retrieving Duck Decoy
  9. Interactive Satellilte Theater
  10. Customized Music Cassettes
  11. Computer Shop-At-Home
  12. Spy-Satellite Photos
  13. Vending Machine French Fries
  14. Le Funelle
  15. Anticavity Pill
  16. Panic-Alarm Wristwatch
  17. Impotency Pills
  18. Car Video Navigation System
  19. Do-it-All Computer Notepad
  20. The Guerrilla Information Network

The Entries

Every item in Future Stuff has three pieces of information associated with it. I've reproduced them in a table for each item:

Part 1: Stuff You Wouldn't Believe!

Part 2: Good Stuff in Small Packages

Part 3: Stuff for the House

Part 4: ...And Stuff for Around the House

Part 5: TVs, Videos, Cameras

Part 6: Music Stuff

Part 7: Phone Stuff

Part 8: For Those who Have Everything

Part 9: At The Supermarket

Part 10: Potato Ice Cream and Other Nutritious Treats

Part 11: Less is Better

Part 12: For Parents

Part 13: Get Smart

Part 14: Future Games

Part 15: Sports Stuff

Part 16: That's Entertainment!

Part 17: Look! No Hands!

Part 18: Rent-A-Cat & Other Essential Services

Part 19: Looking Good, Feeling Good

Part 20: Health

Part 21: Eyes and Ears

Part 22: Teeth

Part 23: Safety

Part 24: Sex Stuff

Part 25: Pet Stuff

Part 26: Future Cars

Part 27: And Still to Come...


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Sunday, March 30 2008, 23:51:36 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Sunday, October 26 2014, 06:00:04 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2014 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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