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BACK TO THE FUTURE TOO: What Marty McFly Got Right, and Wrong in 2015

21st Century Wire says…

The plot in the 1989 pop classic, Back to the Future Part II, was centered around what Marty McFly’s world looked like in the year… 2015.

In the film, the young McFly was sent 30 years into the future in the mad Dr. Emmett Brown’s souped-up DeLorean DMC-12 (equipped with a flux-capacitor). What he found was a world of flying cars, flat-screen TV’s, video phones, biometric ID’s, 3-D holograms, freeze-dried food, ‘hoverboards‘ and self-lacing shoes – but also FAX machines too, so there is a discuss to be had by the futurists here.

Let’s see what old McFly got right, and wrong, from leading futurist writers in the present…


For as long as I can remember, my imagined vision of “life in the future” has centered around the year 2015.

That’s not a year picked at random. That’s thanks to one of cinema’s most memorable depictions of the future: Back to the Future Part II, which was filling up theaters around this time in 1989. If you’re rusty, that’s the one where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) zips 30 years into the future to save his son from getting arrested, inadvertently setting in motion a chain of time-travel ripples that brings him back to a terrible, dystopian 1985. But there’s nothing especially nightmarish about the movie’s vision of 2015, which is a shiny, exciting world of hoverboards, flying cars and ’80s future-chic…

IMAGE: Marty McFly and his legendary DeLorean

Now that the real 2015 is not a week away, let’s assess: How much did screenwriter Bob Gale, director Robert Zemeckis and the rest of the filmmakers get right? For an expert look at how the real 2015 will stack up with Back to the Future’s fictional universe, Newsweek contacted a slew of influential futurists—scientists and thinkers who study and make predictions about the technologies of the future.

Here’s who’s who: Adrian Berry is a longtime science writer/editor for The Daily Telegraph and the author of The Next Ten Thousand Years: A Vision of Man’s Future in the Universe and more than a dozen other books. Ross Dawson is founder of the think tank Future Exploration Network and author of the 2002 book Living Networks, which predicted the rise of social networks. Anne Lise Kjaer is a “future narrator” who is founder of the trend forecasting agency Kjaer Global and author of The Trend Management Toolkit: A Practical Guide to the Future.

Film clip: Marty McFly’s termination ‘via Skype’. Watch…

Syd Mead is a self-described “visual futurist” who notably designed set materials for sci-fi movies including Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982) and Timecop (1994). And Michael Rogers is an author, MSNBC.com columnist and recent futurist-in-residence for The New York Times. Each futurist spoke to Newsweek in separate phone conversations, except for Rogers, who answered our questions by email.

Two caveats are necessary. First, as Zemeckis himself has acknowledged in the director’s commentary on the film’s DVD/Blu-Ray, the goal was to make a funny and entertaining film, not “to make a scientifically sound prediction that we were probably going to get wrong.” So what? Any fictional envisioning of the future offers a glimpse of what present-day writers hope or fear might come true, and in this case the film did recruit a handful of future consultants to help with the predictions. They got more right than they probably expected.

Second thing is, we’re not quite there yet. The Back to the Future sequel takes place primarily on October 21, 2015. In the journalistic interest of timeliness, we’re jumping the gun a little bit. If things change dramatically in the next 10 months, we’ll revisit this assessment. Hopefully we won’t disrupt the space-time continuum as much as Marty.

Some general thoughts on Back to the Future Part II from futurists:

Michael Rogers: One nice aspect of Back to the Future Part II was that the future (25 years ahead) wasn’t a scary dystopia; it was actually a somewhat friendly, happy future with cool consumer goods. And many things hadn’t changed, which is also a crucial point about the future (i.e., today there are still 1989 automobiles on the road, and we regularly fly in passenger planes even older than that).

Ross Dawson: The first point is it was never intended to be a serious film. I think a lot of what they were creating were inherently jokes of a certain kind. I do want to point out that we shouldn’t take them as predictions but as things they thought would look good in a fictional film.

Anne Lise Kjaer: There is a time in the film where Doc says to Marty, “No one should know too much about their future.” And I think that’s very interesting. As a futurist, you know, we help companies in a way find out about the future. Then when he gets the almanac, this book tells the future. In a way, I thought it’s a brilliant plot. Because why do we actually do future predictions, you know?

Syd Mead: They got most of it right in terms of what has been developed and came true. … The future doesn’t start from zero. They use streets and sets and things already existent. When you overlay a future onto a recognizable present, you’re already halfway there already.

Michael Rogers: Of course, our actual 2015 may be a bit more threatening, with aspects like extreme weather and the increasing automation of jobs casting a shadow. Given those factors, I’m not sure that a Back to the Future III, set in 2040, could be quite as sunny. [Author’s note: There is in fact a Back to the Future Part III, but it takes place further into the past, in 1885.]

Syd Mead: If you’re designing for the movies, you’ve got to overlay a believable future onto a recognizable past. If you don’t do that, you have to either interrupt the story and explain it or you lose the audience.

Anne Lise Kjaer: I heard the other day on the BBC, “History is a pack of lies told by people who were never there in the first place.” And I thought, yeah, you could say the same thing about the future, right?

(Image Credit: Hooniverse)

So when are we getting flying cars?

Michael Rogers: Futurists have been predicting flying cars almost ever since the car itself was invented. But the barriers are big. In terms of basic design, flying vehicles need lift; cars shouldn’t have lift. In terms of driver skills, a car is basically two-dimensional navigation; an airplane is three dimensional. Big difference in the driving skill required. And finally, the FAA. Consider how cautious the regulators are being about drones, which weigh a few pounds and don’t carry passengers. Multiply that caution by, oh, about a million, and that’s how the regulators will respond to flying cars.

Adrian Berry: Well, they could happen. But I think the flying will be entirely computerized. You’ll get a computer to fly it for you. It will be a self-flying car. Otherwise there would be so many accidents, because people are not very good at driving in two dimensions. As for driving in three dimensions, I think it’s a recipe for disaster.

Ross Dawson: We do have flying cars. But not in the way they’re portrayed in the film. [Dawson adds via email: Flying cars exist; see for example AeroMobil. But we don’t yet have the highly manoeuvrable vehicles shown in the film.]

Adrian Berry: I’ve thought about them for years and years, but I think they’re terribly dangerous for the whole population. As soon as you start driving the things yourself, there will be an awful lot of dead bodies falling out of the sky…

(…) What about the hoverboards?

Michael Rogers: I’ve thought about the hoverboard a lot, and what it would require, basically, is anti-gravity technology. In 2015 we won’t even have a complete theory of gravity.

Glen Hiemstra: Obviously the hoverboard was wrong. But there’s a hoverboard company now. It uses magnetic repulsion. They’re called Hendo Hoverboards. They have to be on a certain kind of metal surface. It’s a company with big dreams of having a big impact in the warehousing and factory business, where you could move things around on big hoverboards. As of six months ago, we would’ve said, “Well, they got hoverboards wrong.” But Hendo appeared in the past six months…

(…) On the food and kitchen technology of the future:

Glen Hiemstra: They’re in his future house with his future self. And they make the pizza. And then a thing comes down out of the ceiling, which is a big garden thing that has fresh fruit and herbs and other vegetables in it. We do microwave a lot of things. You can go to any outdoor [camping supplies] store and get a pretty wide array of dehydrated food that isn’t that far off from that small pizza.

Syd Mead: No, I don’t remember [how the film depicted food]. I hope it wasn’t pills. [laughs] That was a fixture in future films. Popping steak or spinach or whatever in a pill. I hope it never comes to that.

Ross Dawson: The dehydrated pizza … I think this is an interesting point. I was saying before they were creating fiction. There was quite a lot they incorporated that was what people were anticipating. In the ’80s, people were thinking about this idea of dehydrated food. This kind of portrayal of the future helps us to distinguish between the things we think are going to happen and then [decide] “I want that” or “I don’t want that.”

Syd Mead: Microwave dinners are bad enough. Of course, microwave upsets the molecular structure of food, which isn’t too terribly healthy….

(…) What else did the movie get horribly wrong?

Glen Hiemstra: The number one thing they got wrong was the dominance of fax machines in 2015. That’s characteristic of a common forecasting pitfall, which is to overestimate the importance of something that is dominant in the current time. Fax machines were relatively new in the late ’80s. So if you remember when Marty’s getting fired, there’s a fax coming in. And they refer to fax machines several times. Some time in the first 30 minutes, Marty and Doc walk past a U.S. postal service mailbox out on the street. It has a big computer terminal and a big sign that says “Fax here.” Faxes are still around but they aren’t in any way dominant.

Continue this story and see the full report at Newsweek

READ MORE SCI-TECH NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Sci-Tech Files



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