x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How is the tomorrow of yesterday shaping up?

It was first broadcast in 1962 and was set in 2062, so we're now halfway to the future imagined by The Jetsons. How does the modern world compare with the sci-fi version?

The Jetsons. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
The Jetsons. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The future zoomed on to our television screens 50 years ago. Or at least a vision of what 2062 would look like, as imagined by the scriptwriters who set The Jetsons 100 years ahead of their own time.

Given that the screens on which that first episode appeared in September 1962 were small, slightly bulbous in shape, rounded at the corners and only capable of black and white transmission, it's impressive that the show's writers managed to get anything right.

And especially considering they were joining a long and less-than-illustrious history of foretellings that more often display hubris rather than prescience.

A canny designer captured this spirit when the millennium rolled around, selling T-shirts bearing the logo: "It's the 21st century. Where's my jetpack?"

According to popular predictions, we were all supposed to be wearing sleek modular clothing and zooming around on space scooters by now, holidaying on Mars and living in undersea cities.

Such prospects now seem about as likely as Marty McFly's hover skateboard, which was predicted to be in use in July 2015 in the 1989 movie Back To The Future II.

(The movie got it right that there'd be flat-screen televisions and there'd be hands-free video games.)

In many ways, the UAE has made the greatest leap towards the Jetsonian future. When the show first screened, Abu Dhabi was a collection of ramshackle arish huts with only rudimentary roads traversed by a handful of four-wheel drives. Compare that to the gleaming glass skyscrapers found here now and the driverless pods fuelled from renewable sources that transport people around Masdar.

Even Sheikh Zayed in his most ambitious dreams might not have expected the future UAE capital to turn out like this, the first oil having been pumped into a tanker on Das Island just a couple of months before The Jetsons screened.

Many urbanists have been struck by similarities between Dubai and Orbit City, where the Jetsons lived. One Baltimore town planner, writing under the name BC Planning, said that both cities "are made up of super-tall skyscrapers surrounded by highways" (Orbit City's motorway was in the sky). Neither city had much street life and residents were forced to take single-serving transit to get their most basic needs.

"As a city planner, the most striking thing about these two cities in their quest to become futuristic utopias is their lack of advancement in human connection and planning," he added.

"How ironic is it that the creators of The Jetsons created a technologically advanced society that innovated everything except human interaction with each other and the places they live. For all the great gadgets that Elroy Jetson had, he had no park to play in with his dog. The Jetsons may have had everything they wanted - except a real community."

Another Dubai resident, photographer Alice Hartley, also likened Dubai's skyline to Orbit City's, saying The Jetsons "represented a happy optimism of technology and the future, neither utopian nor dystopian; just circuitry and solar cells at their best (but of course still malfunctioning, same as today)".

The announcement of Masdar, the world's first carbon-neutral and zero-waste city on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, prompted a predictable flurry of Jetsons comparisons, even if the reality at Masdar is lagging behind the original hopes of its planners.

Elyse Finley directly linked it with The Jetsons last year, saying that while flying cars are a way off, the fully sustainable city was "just around the corner". Citing the solar-powered pod cars and other developments, she added: "George Jetson would be proud."

Jeffrey Tucker, the executive editor of Laissez Faire Books, argues that The Jetsons was remarkably accurate at predicting future working life, albeit without a nine-hour working week. "The technology used in The Jetsons is nearly on target with current trends. Workers sit behind screens and punch buttons and complain about long days," he wrote. "The cars fly, which of course hasn't happened, but flight has become routine for the middle class. Travel is fast. Food is fast. Construction is fast. Robots do most tasks people once did, and so everyone is struggling to find exercise outlets."

Jon Orlin, writing for the website TechCrunch, says Jetsonian predictions have been a mixed bag, although there's still 50 years to go to see if they all come true. But he noted that a flying car, the Transition (looking like the result of an unholy union of a Corolla and a Cesna), made its debut flight in 2009.

George's work computer, RUDI (the referential universal digital indexer), would seem like old technology these days, when you can ask Siri almost anything on your iPhone. The same with video chat, although the users of today haven't adopted the fake face used by Jane Jetson when she hadn't done her make-up.

The televiewer, where George could read the news on a screen at home, is a pretty good prediction of the iPad. And Judy's digital diary predicted Facebook, which could have averted the court battle between the Winklevoss twins and Mark Zuckerberg about who invented it.

Orlin said so far, the closest humanity had come to Rosie the robot is the Roomba, an automatic vacuum cleaner.

Something almost every futurologist failed to predict is email and texting. But given that newspapers now are talking about the end of email, Orlin wonders if it's possible that it died out before 2062.

That more-misses-than-hits record matches most attempts to divine the future. Few have got it so spectacularly wrong as Edward Bellamy, whose 1888 book Looking Backward recounts a 19th-century American who wakes up in Boston in the year 2000 to find a socialist utopia where war and income disparity have both been eliminated.

Clearly Bellamy didn't predict this was the year when George W Bush would be elected president, although many of the current Tea Party no doubt firmly believe the United States is a socialist state.

Better known 19th-century futurists HG Wells and Jules Verne each earn a mixed score for their predictions. Time travel is no closer now than it was when they were writing but Verne got it right about men walking on the moon (albeit spurred by the Cold War) and Wells was right about recorded video being commonplace.

In 1968 a magazine called Mechanix Illustrated looked 40 years into the future and predicted every house would be a smart house with air quality controlled automatically. This will be familiar to anyone in the UAE with a functioning air-conditioning unit.

They would be less familiar with other predictions, including the space cities and rocket cars in the illustration that went with the story. A tech blogger writing under the name KennedyPJ said the magazine made some remarkably accurate predictions although it also claimed there would be an "intelligence pill" that people could use to access their full mental potential. "All it takes is a stroll through the local Walmart to see that this prediction did not become a reality," he adds.

For all the high-tech of The Jetsons, the show's family was a direct transplant from the utopian vision of the American nuclear family in the suburbs in the early 1960s. Feminism was unheard of, as were the blended families that are the reality for half of all preteens in the United States now.

You might have thought someone would have predicted that.

John Henzell is a senior features writer for The National.