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The Future of the Past (Blade Runner Edition)

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on May 12, 2008

The other evening, having nothing better to do, I headed over to one of my favorite places, the American Film Institutes’s Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., for a screening of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian fantasy has held up well, but I was struck again by how terrible we are at predicting the future of technology.

The movie is set in Los Angeles in 2019, which wasn’t all that far in the future in 1982 and is now close enough for us to know much of what is wrong with its vision. The big issue, of course, is one central to the plot: By 2019, we would be capable of producing robots that cannot be distinguished from human beings. While there has been great progress in robotics, we still can’t get them to walk properly and most robt designers have long since decided that robots that roll are a lot more useful than those that try to get about on two legs. Also, no computer has come anywhere close to passing a Turning test by convincing a anyone that it could carry on a human conversation.

But a rebellion of humanoid robots is such a stock item of science fiction that I'll forgive that one. But what about those flying cars? The way things are going, we'll be lucky if we can still roll down the road in 2019. And the computers? In 1982, they seem to have believed that 37 years later, we'd still be using green-screen text CRT monitors. And Deckard might have had an easier time hunting down the replicants if he'd had a cell phone.

The cultural vision wasn't any better. I guess the fact that Los Angeles in 2019 seems to be an overwhelmingly Japanese speaking city, at least judging by the signage, reflects the early-80s zeitgeist believe that the Japanese were taking over the world. The polyglot LA of today is, mercifully, a lot more interesting.

Scott and his writers and art directors seem to have believed that we were heading for climate change, but they didn't get that quite right either. Even in an el Nino year, it doesn't rain that much in LA.

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Reader Comments

Dave Taylor

May 13, 2008 12:28 AM

Not to be too much of a Blade Runner geek, but the replicants weren't robots, per se. They weren't metal or mechanical men, but rather genetically engineered proto-humans. Given the physical augmentation we see in modern medicine plus the super-human performance of highly drugged athletes, I think that element of the dystopia isnt' as far off as it may seem...

Steve Wildstrom

May 13, 2008 08:21 AM

@Dave Taylor--I really have to reread Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's not quite clear what replicants are or what Deckard means when he says "you can't hurt them; you can only kill them." When they are shot, they show gaping flesh wounds, but don't bleed. In any event, we don;t seem a lot closer to being able to build genetically engineered replicants by 12019 than we are to making humanoid robots. I wouldn't be surprised though if by 2019 we are routinely growing replacement organs.


May 13, 2008 10:05 AM

The supposed advancements in technology weren't so much a creation of Scott and his writers as they were Dick's ideas written 53 years prior to the date in which the novel takes place. In 1966 GUI wasn't even dreamed of. The noxious climate change was also Dick's device to reflect the overwhelming dystopian nature of the future in everything around the main characters.

And as for flying cars, in the 1960s it was thought that we wouldn't rely on planes nearly as much as we do and little personal jetcars stored in our garages would substitute airliners and airports. Just take a look at one of the most famous cartoons of the era, The Jetsons. Ultimately though, Dick's story was about the nature of what is human and what isn't and all the plays on popular trends and ideas of the time was just window dressing for the main conflict.


May 13, 2008 10:48 AM

Did you notice that Blade Runner, like so so many sci-fi movies, assumed we'd all be using video phones? Here futurists looked at what they thought would be possible, but didn't think about what might be desirable. We have the technology for videophones, but people don't want to be tied to a camera while talking on the phone.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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