Does Modern Technology Live Up to the Predictions of the Past?
We maybe don’t have jetpacks or flying cars, but present-day technology is still pretty innovative.
The future’s not what it used to be.
By all accounts, it should be here by now. The new millennium is old enough to vote. NASA has been in space for half a century. Virtually every house has a computer, and every pocket a smaller, cuter one.
And yet the promised future is incomplete. Where, as the refrain goes, is my flying car? Our jetpacks? Why does it even still rain on us? Is it not the future?
Well, yes and no. Some of our promised future gizmos have already arrived — even if they’re prohibitively expensive — and some are literally impossible. As novelist and future fabulist William Gibson has said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Ultimately, the future is whatever you make it, Doc tells us in Back to the Future Part III.
So here’s what we’ve made of some of the most popular promised technologies.
What is it? A machine worn as a backpack that lets you fly, usually via jet engine.
Where you’ve seen it: The Rocketeer, The Jetsons, Iron Man (though not a back-based variation)
Why it’d be so cool: One of our most primal urges is to soar around as easily as birds. The jetpack lets us do it in the most “natural” way: no cockpits shielding us from the wind, no hot air balloons leaving us at the mercy of air currents, just pure high-flying action. You could take the fastest route to work every day, literally as the crow flies. Or shoot over to the neighboring country to see the sites. And let’s not forget about the military advantages if a jetpack came standard with every soldier’s uniform. Ultimately, the jetpack is about freedom. Fly in or out of any situation you want, and look badass while doing it.
When were we supposed to have it: Although usually shorthand for “the future,” The Rocketeer’s jetpack came about in the 1930s, so we’re way behind on that score.
How close are we? You could fly around in a jetpack right now … if you’re in the right environment.
In space, astronauts have been scooting around in so-called manned maneuvering units since 1984. Not an astronaut? You’ll have better luck over water. Hydro jetpacks, including the name brand Flyboard, use Jet Ski-like technology to shoot water instead of a gas propellant. The catch: It needs a fuel source. So while these machines look and apparently feel an awful lot like traditional flying jetpacks, they’re still literally tethered to the water.
So what about the real deal? It’s possible, but not exactly as consumer tech. JetPack Aviation, whose CEO flew around the Statue of Liberty in 2015, offers promotional flights and training; no FAA pilot’s license required. Or how about the Flyboard Air, a jetpack for your feet? The catch: It lasts only 10 minutes, costs $250,000 and isn’t actually for sale yet.
Ultimately, there’s a reason consumer jetpacks are not more available in real life. The jet itself would be extremely dangerous to other fliers and careless pilots — to say nothing of the flames shooting out — and it would probably be uncomfortably loud and cumbersome. And, basically, humans just aren’t very aerodynamic, so controlling such a device at any speed is tricky.
Still, at least there are options.
Fun Fact: The Rocketeer wasn’t all lies. The Nazis really did try to get their hands on jetpack technology over 80 years ago. Luckily, creating a flying backpack wasn’t any easier back then.