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Back to the Future Day celebrates how much the movie got right about technology

While celebrating Back to the Future Day, futurists and film lovers (and maybe even time travellers) are saluting the 1989 movie’s often uncanny vision of how technological innovations would shape the world of 2015.
Above, the time traveller Marty McFly, played by Michael J Fox, rides a hoverboard in 1989’s Back To The Future II. Universal / Everett / REX Shutterstock
Above, the time traveller Marty McFly, played by Michael J Fox, rides a hoverboard in 1989’s Back To The Future II. Universal / Everett / REX Shutterstock

Today is Back to the Future Day – October 21, 2015, the date to which Marty McFly and Doc Brown flew forward in the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II.

Celebrations are everywhere. The internet abounds with analyses of how many of the film’s predicted technologies and gadgets we now have, what ones we don’t and which others may be around the corner.

But sticking here in the present, let’s take a look at it from three angles – actual versus imagined technologies, the film’s technology and what it says about the spirit of the times, and whether we really appreciate all these marvellous advances.

Back to the futurists

Futurists, who study and project trends, say that in many ways the 2015 of reality is even more radically different than what the director Robert Zemeckis imagined in his 1989 movie.

When Marty and Doc burst into 2015 in a time machine, they encounter a world of refuse-fuelled flying cars, self-tying shoes and robot waiters.

For audiences in 1989, when CDs were the height of high tech, the movie portrayed an exciting world in which people would flit around on gravity-defying hoverboards, sporting self-drying, auto-adjusting clothes, and having their dogs walked by helicopter drones.

Many of the gadgets anticipated by scriptwriters who dropped the movie’s oddball pair – and their DeLorean time machine – into the “future” on October 21, 2015 have failed to materialise. Yet quite a few have been realised or even surpassed.

What we can do with smartphones now, for example, was almost inconceivable in the 1989 projection of 2015.

“Their capabilities today, including access to all information on the planet, would have absolutely astounded even most futurists of 30 years ago ... who didn’t imagine a phone would be for anything other than speaking and texting,” the Sydney-based futurist Ross Dawson told Agence France-Presse. “Back when the movie was made, people looking at the reality of today would find it quite mind-boggling.”

Technology we would now struggle without – Google, Wikipedia, smartphone GPS, for example – would have been hard to envisage when the film came out.

In the movie, Marty, played by Michael J Fox, receives a dismissal notice at home by fax – a now clunky technology that seemed cutting edge in the 1980s. The internet revolution was a while away, and the world had yet to receive email.

In 1985, only about a quarter of US households had a microwave oven, and videocassette recorders (VCRs) were the must-have viewing technology.

Today you can buy a home 3D printer on the internet for a few hundred dollars, that can produce anything from a gun that squirts water to one that shoots bullets.

We can download songs and stream films – computing terms that did not exist in 1985.

We can edit the human genome to fix disease-causing DNA, we have grown hamburger “meat” from cow muscle cells, and we have placed a robot probe on a comet hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth.

“Humans very quickly get used to innovations and take them for granted,” said Mr Dawson, founder of the Future Exploration Network, which offers scenario planning services.

Still, the film did get some things right. We do have flat screens, live video-calling, tablet computers and portable up-to-the-minute weather apps.

Although not yet in full swing, we also have biometric technology for paying bills or unlocking doors with a fingerprint, and off-the-shelf smart glasses similar to those worn by Marty’s offspring.

“It was actually quite visionary of them to get so many things right,” said Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute, a futurist think tank based in the US.

“They depicted it in kind of a comical, goofy way actually, but I think they did quite a phenomenal job back then of anticipating things that must have seemed fairly ludicrous at the time.”

But some predictions were too far ahead of their time.

Thirty years ago, most futurists would have given flying cars by 2015 “greater than 50-50 odds,” the independent futurist Jack Uldrich said in Minneapolis.

“There are some companies that are working on flying cars, but what they don’t have is that take-off [vertical] lift,” as demonstrated by Doc’s DeLorean.

Innovators have drawn inspiration from the movie. The California-based company Hendo is creating a hoverboard which works on magnetic repulsion. Nike is working on trainers with self-tightening “power laces” similar to the ones Marty wore.

One thing that the movie got wildly wrong was the prediction that lawyers have been “abolished”.

“I think a lot of people wished that had come true,” said Mr Uldrich, but then who would settle disputes between humans and robots in the future?

Future’s so bright

Stephen Carter teaches law at Yale University. He believes the underlying theme of Back to the Future is, in line with its tech dreams, optimism about the future. Mr Carter says it is amazing how much Zemeckis got right in the film. He wrote the following paragraphs in a commentary for the Bloomberg news agency:

True, there aren’t any flying cars yet, and hoverboard technology is getting hung up with technical challenges. But Zemeckis was right about wearable computers, television screens that display multiple channels, fingerprint scanners, hands-free gaming, even drones.

But for all the deserved encomiums for Zemeckis’s movie, what strikes me as most memorable about his imagined future is how sunnily optimistic it is. The future was something to look forward to. It would be better than the present. The devices with which the future was decorated, from the self-walking dog leash to the instantaneous food, would make life easier. In a sense Zemeckis was extending the goofy ordinariness of The Jetsons or for that matter the original Star Trek. In a nutshell, Zemeckis portrayed a future where we would be pretty much like we are in the present, but with cooler tech.

The optimism extended even to the invention of the time machine itself. When Marty buys a sports almanac so that he can take it back to 1985 and become rich betting on games that have already happened, Doc Brown throws the volume in the rubbish bin and treats his young protégé to a stern lecture about how he built the time machine not to make money but to better humanity. Of course the great threat to the beauty of that future arises only after Biff decides to carry out Marty’s unfortunate plan and change the past.

But the Zemeckis future isn’t perfect. For example, there seem to be slums. Hilldale, where Marty’s future self lives, was originally designed as an upscale subdivision, but in 2015 is derided by a police officer: “They ought to tear this whole place down. Nothing more than a breeding ground for tranks, lobos and zipheads.” Yet apart from a few tiny pieces of set decoration – the graffiti, for instance – the supposed slum never looks terribly slummy. The home the future Marty shares with his wife, Jennifer, seems to have all the modern conveniences. And fans (well, very geeky fans anyway) argue reasonably that the mess that’s been made of Hilldale somehow represents the future restructuring itself after Biff’s intervention in the timeline.

But for Back to the Future Wednesday, at least, we should relax and let the sunniness of the film fill our day with cheer. So let’s all kick back with a bottle of Pepsi Perfect, jump on our hoverboards, and watch the Cubs win the World Series.

Yawning gap

The world is full of new things. Yet even as evolving technology catches up with celluloid dreams, so does our ability to grow bored with it. Consider the Bloomberg news article below about 3D printers gathering dust. It affirms the futurist Mr Dawson’s assertion, in the first part of this article, that people “very quickly get used to innovations and take them for granted”. Bloomberg’s report:

Anne-Isabelle Choueiri gave her kids a 3D printer last Christmas when they were hailed as the next big thing. Almost a year later, it’s all but forgotten.

“It’s been recycled as a bedside table,” Ms Choueiri, a 39-year-old digital consultant in New York, said of her $799 Da Vinci 1.0 AiO device from XYZprinting.

The initial excitement for 3D printers in the home – producing toys and parts for broken gadgets and potentially becoming as commonplace as the PC – is wilting. Ms Choueiri found her device fragile. And the results take time. A simple print of a mini-Eiffel tower or a lighthouse took two hours, and her kids, being kids, didn’t wait around.

For many, the time and effort needed to produce anything may outshine any pleasure that is derived from it.

Ms Choueiri said she thinks it is too early to call the devices consumer goods.

“In the end there was not much family fun and enjoyment,” she said. If friends ask for her opinion, “I would tell them: ‘don’t buy one, they are not ready yet’.”

Pressing pause

Back to the Future Part II envisioned consumer drones – but now that they exist, so does a prosaic need to regulate them. Fascinating only a few years ago, they have become to many people an annoyance and even a menace.

On Monday, the US government announced that, for public safety reasons, it would require many of the unmanned aircraft to be registered.

The Federal Aviation Administration now receives about 100 reports a month from pilots who say they have seen drones flying near planes and airports, compared with only a few sightings per month last year. So far there has been no accident, but agency officials are concerned that a drone weighing only a few kilograms might cause serious damage if it is sucked into an engine or smashes into an airliner’s windscreen.

Toys and small drones are likely to be exempt from the requirement. Drones that weigh up to a kilogram or that cannot fly higher than a couple of hundred metres are considered less risky, but heavier ones and those that can fly to greater heights pose more of a problem.

If the future unfolds like a movie, then regulators are there to press pause.

In the Back to the Future trilogy, the young idealist McFly’s mantra was: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” And much of what the film-makers dreamt up has indeed been accomplished over the intervening 26 years. But turn the clock forward another quarter-century and who knows what the world will be like. We might even have time machines, for sale on Amazon and registered with the government.

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Updated: October 20, 2015 04:00 AM

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