Ask someone what the world will look like 100 years from now, and you’ll get some answers that are truly outrageous: Robots will take over the world and harvest humans for energy, while keeping us all calm by creating a vast virtual world for us to live in. Others, meanwhile, will be utterly mundane: Cars will get incrementally faster and more fuel efficient and will be slightly better versions of the cars we have now. Yawn, right?
But predictions such as those are decidedly less boring when you consider them in the context of these amusing postcards on the site of Public Domain Review. The cards, made between 1899 and 1910 by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists, depict a vision of what the world would look like in the year 2000. What’s most amazing isn’t what they got wrong, but the astonishing specificity of some of the things that they got exactly right.
Let’s start, though, with the whiffs. No vision of the future is complete without flying cars. If you ask people today about the world in 2112, they will, invariably, say we will have cars in the air. People are desperate to hold on to the idea of a future where you can take to the sky in your personal vehicle. Given our current auto accident rates, and the added damage a fall from thousands of feet in the air can do, it seems unlikely that we’ll get flying cars, unless driving software can take the guesswork out of personal mobility. Though stop to think for a second: How different is this vision than one when the skies are full of personal UAVs. Do you have to be in the flying car?
There also seems to have been a fixation on a future where we would spend large amounts of our life underwater, holding races on seahorses, upside-down fishing for seagulls, and taking rides on buses powered by whales. (Not to mention underwater hotels.) But these bad guesses also speak correctly to our present: The ocean remains almost entirely unexplored and unexploited (except for taking all the fish out of it). Perhaps even 100 years ago, French artists saw that we would be using up our resources and space on land, and so guessed that the sea would be the next logical place to move.
Seahorse races aside, it’s amazing to see what oddly specific and totally accurate visions of the future are in these postcards. Above, you can see that 100 years ago, someone knew that the Roomba would be coming to our living rooms. They also understood that farming was difficult and labor intensive, and it would be wonderful if machines could take over part of the process (though little could they predict we’d now be trying to undo that). You can also see a classroom in which all the students are connected and learning via electricity. An iPad isn’t quite a metal brain cap, but they were very close to the right idea. And then, most mundanely, they guessed that we would want houses that could also move on wheels. That’s right. In turn-of-the-century France, people were desperately waiting for someone to invent the RV.
What will the world look like 100 years from now? Our predictions will be the same amounts accurate and ridiculous as our predecessors. No one can predict sudden technological innovations that utterly change the world; few prognosticators would have guessed that we would spend hours a day staring at a screen, cycling through the summer vacation pictures of old acquaintances we don’t care about. But you can make some accurate guesses about the most annoying and inconvenient things in life (like that cars use a lot of expensive gas) and assume that, as society progresses, people might make a stab at making them better. And maybe, finally, give them wings.