Every time I've passed a television set today, someone's been doing a featurette about "Back to the Future" Day. Today - October 21st 2015 - chances to be the actual date of the fictional future into which the stars of Back to the Future II were propelled, thirty years ago. Nothing the movie predicted back in the Eighties has come to pass - no flying cars, no hoverboards. The most exciting development of the past quarter-century has been the transformation of the telephone into a miniature typewriter that also plays pop songs.
I don't fault the makers of Back to the Future II for predicting all that high-tech stuff that never came to pass. Well, actually, come to think of it, I do. It was already obvious in 1985 that the western world was slowing down. In a certain profound sense, our civilization has given up on the future - which is why, if you were really to propel someone forward from thirty years ago, they'd mainly be amazed that Central Europe is now a Muslim refugee camp and Communist China is a dominant economic power.
But putting all that to one side, what happened to innovation? As is often said, the chief invention of the 19th century was invention: Our Victorian forebears transformed the rhythms of life that had prevailed for most of human history. The internal combustion engine conquered distance, the electric light bulb conquered night. The first half of the 20th century unleashed that transformative potential.
And in the second half? My bestselling book After America (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore, he plugs desperately) has a whole section on this, using not a flying DeLorean but something closer to H G Wells' original time-travel apparatus:
Picture a man or woman of the late 19th century, perhaps your own great-grandfather or great-great-grandmother, sitting in an ordinary American home of 1890. And now pitch him forward in an H G Wells machine, not to our time but about halfway – to that same ordinary American home, circa 1950.
Why, the poor gentleman of 1890 would be astonished. His old home is full of mechanical contraptions. There is a huge machine in the corner of the kitchen, full of food and keeping the milk fresh and cold! There is another shiny device whirring away and seemingly washing milady's bloomers with no human assistance whatsoever! Even more amazingly, there is a full orchestra playing somewhere within his very house. No, wait, it's coming from a tiny box on the countertop!
The music is briefly disturbed by a low rumble from the front yard, and our time-traveler glances through the window: A metal conveyance is coming up the street at an incredible speed – with not a horse in sight. It's enclosed with doors and windows, like a house on wheels, and it turns into the yard, and the doors open all at once, and two grown-ups and four children all get out - just like that, as if it's the most natural thing in the world! He notices there is snow on the ground, and yet the house is toasty warm, even though no fire is lit and there appears to be no stove. A bell jingles from a small black instrument on the hall table. Good heavens! Is this a "telephone"? He'd heard about such things, and that the important people in the big cities had them. But to think one would be here in his very own home! He picks up the speaking tube. A voice at the other end says there is a call from across the country - and immediately there she is, a lady from California talking as if she were standing next to him, without having to shout, or even raise her voice! And she says she'll see him tomorrow!
Oh, very funny. They've got horseless carriages in the sky now, have they?
What marvels! In a mere 60 years!
But then he espies his Victorian time machine sitting invitingly in the corner of the parlor. Suppose he were to climb on and ride even further into the future. After all, if this is what an ordinary American home looks like in 1950, imagine the wonders he will see if he pushes on another six decades!
So on he gets, and sets the dial for our own time.
And when he dismounts he wonders if he's made a mistake. Because, aside from a few design adjustments, everything looks pretty much as it did in 1950: The layout of the kitchen, the washer, the telephone... Oh, wait. It's got buttons instead of a dial. And the station wagon in the front yard has dropped the woody look and seems boxier than it did. And the folks getting out seem ...larger, and dressed like overgrown children.
And the refrigerator has a magnet on it holding up an endless list from a municipal agency detailing what trash you have to put in which colored boxes on what collection days.
But other than that, and a few cosmetic changes, he might as well have stayed in 1950.
Let's pause and acknowledge the one exception to the above scenario: The computer. Instead of having to watch Milton Berle on that commode-like thing in the corner, as one would in 1950, you can now watch Uncle Miltie on YouTube clips from your iPhone. But be honest, aside from that, what's new? Your horseless carriage operates on the same principles it did a century ago. It's added a CD player and a few cup holders, but you can't go any faster than you could 50 years back. As for that great metal bird in the sky, commercial flight hasn't advanced since the introduction of the 707 in the 1950s. Air travel went from Wilbur and Orville to bi-planes to flying boats to jetliners in its first half-century, and then for the next half-century it just sat there, like a commuter twin-prop parked at Gate 27B at LaGuardia waiting for the mysteriously absent gate agent to turn up and unlock the jetway.
In the book I quote Bruce Charlton, Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham in England:
'I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
'Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer wanted to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something... But I am suggesting that all this is BS... I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.'
Can that be true? Charlton is a controversialist gadfly in British academe, but, comparing 1950 to the early 21st century, our time traveler from 1890 might well agree with him. And, if you think about it, isn't it kind of hard even to imagine America pulling off a moon mission now? The countdown, the takeoff, a camera transmitting real-time footage of a young American standing in a dusty crater beyond our planet... It half-lingers in collective consciousness as a memory of faded grandeur, the way a 19th century date farmer in Nasiriyah might be dimly aware that the Great Ziggurat of Ur used to be around here someplace.
The personal computer is, of course, an important exception to the above thesis. Except that to the more ambitious governments around the world smartphone technology is a 24/7 electronic ankle bracelet with a complimentary Justin Bieber download. Paul Rahe:
Totalitarianism is a function of technology. Prior to recent times, governments might claim to be absolute, but they did not have the record-keeping, administrative capacity to make good on that claim. Now they can do so far more easily than ever before — without hiring armies of spies. All that they have to do is follow the population on the Internet and use computers to collect and analyze the data. What Google can do, governments can do — and in Xi Jinping's China that is what they are going to do.
So there are no flying cars. But the earthbound ones now come equipped with technology that will permit governments to keep a record of everywhere you go.
And, if Obama or Cameron or Hollande or Merkel or Malcolm Turnbull or - drumroll, please! - Justin Trudeau were to propose activating that technology in the interests of reducing your carbon footprint, most citizens of western nations would nod approvingly in the cause of "saving the planet".