2015 – we are living “Back to the Future II”(?)

Back_to_the_Future_Part_IISo, now that we’ve reached 2015 it’s a great opportunity to look at what this year might hold. And what better way to do that than the fantasies which are connected to this year. The biggest fantasy is probably that imagined by the film Back to the Future II (1989) which was set partially in 1985, 1955 and 2015. So, we’re looking at the view of 2015 from about 30 years in the past.

Listen here to the soundcloud recording of my chat with Leon Compton on ABC Hobart 936.

There has already been quite a few articles looking at what Back to the Future got right and wrong about 2015. Beyond the hoverboard, the self-lacing shoes and 3D Jaws 19 effect, there was one prophecy I was most excited by – the idea of using garbage as the fuel source to power your car. The scene is right at the start of the movie where Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) grabs a pile of garbage from Marty’s place and proceeds to put it into some blender device on top of the Delorean’s engine – this we suppose is now the fuel of the future.

fusion energy from garbage as imagined in Back to the Future II.

fusion energy from garbage as imagined in Back to the Future II.

I always thought this would be great – not only super cheap – it’s your garbage after all. But a perfect recyclable process and cutting out one of the biggest cost spirals of recent times – the price of oil and all the wars and violence that have centred around its control and exploitation. Sadly, this of all the visions is the one I’d most hoped to see happen which hasn’t.

So, what did BttF II get right about the future? I would say the biggest correct vision is an aspect of the continued dominance of ‘screen culture’. The film is pretty good at depicting the dominance of ever bigger, flat screen technology around us. Portraying homes and street scapes where large, flat panel screens dominate. I think this has come to pass with the affordability of large LCD, plasma, and 3D screens. The other thing that was pretty close was the dominance of screen culture on Marty’s children – while none of us are sporting the virtual glasses portrayed in the film (although the technology does exist and is popularised by Google’s glasses), it missed the technology that would deliver it – the tablet and mobile phone. And here we have some of the biggest misses of the film – it missed the Internet and mobile phone devices.

With the film released in 1989, and was set in 1985 (view of the world in 30 years time), and the aim wasn’t necessarily about being scientifically correct, but imaging the future in a way that would entertain the audience, and be believable enough. There’s a couple of sections in the Back to the Future wikipedia article which attest to the broad canvas the production team had to paint on, as well as the more topic bent they were aiming at:

  • “Visual effects art director John Bell stated they had no script to work with, only the indications that the setting would be 30 years into the future featuring “something called hover boards”.”[3] (Wikipedia)
  • “When writing the script for Part II, Gale wanted to push the first film’s ideas further for humorous effect. Zemeckis said he was somewhat concerned about portraying the future because of the risk of making wildly inaccurate predictions. According to Gale, they tried to make the future a nice place, “where what’s wrong is due to who lives in the future as opposed to the technology” in contrast to the pessimistic, Orwellian future seen in most science fiction.[1]” (wikipedia)
Jaws 19

Jaws 19

To summarise some of the key points around this discussion of Back to the Future II’s view of 2015 we have:

Problems with predicting the future:

  • I’m reminded of a great quote: “Nothing dates faster than today’s version of tomorrow”
  • these visions usually say more about the time in which the prediction is made, than any reality about the future
  • They’re based on an assumption: that life is governed by stability and order. A type of technological determinism.
  • However, when we can barely predict the weather (as the recent reaction to the snow storm that failed to eventuate in NY) or massive financial disasters how sure can we be of more speculative projections into the far (or near) future
  • ultimately things are too random to offer any convincing predictions – that’s why ideas such as the butterfly effect became so popular. Trying to live with ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s stressful and anxious, but possibly truer.

Kind of right:

  • 3D movies (no Jaws 19, but plenty of big franchise movies – Star Wars, Star Trek, the Marvel universe, etc)
  • multichannel screens
  • flat screens
  • skype type audio-visual phone calls
  • kids preoccupied with digital world (but through VR eyewear)
  • nostalgia for the 80s (the theme diner in the movie) …. maybe

less so:

  • flying cars
  • men’s fashion
  • the fuel source for the time traveling Delorean – it was all derived from garbage.
  • self-lassing shoes
  • auto-fitting clothes
  • fashion: pull out pockets from pants
  • hoverboard
    • funny or die hoverboard hoax Christopher Lloyd, Tony Hawk
      nov 2014 first real hoverboard tests (a little less spectacular) with Tony Hawk (which was linked to a kickstarter campaign) Hendo Hoverboards
      instant-cook ovens: pizza


  • pay phones no longer here
  • fax machines much less common
  • very print heavy world (with dust-proof paper)
    (note: while we’re still largely still using paper, it’s not given the same privileged space that the movie does)

What the movie failed to include from the future

  • no internet
  • no mobile phones (still pay-phone heavy streetscapes in the movie)

download (1)The Hoverboard hoax/reality is the most long-lasting of the future icons spawned from the movie
There is a pretty long running history of hoaxes based around the ‘reality’ of the hoverboard
From the film’s wikipedia entry: in the 2005 DVD release: “Robert Zemeckis said on the film’s behind-the-scenes featurette that the hoverboards (flying skateboards) used in the film were real, yet not released to the public, due to parental complaints regarding safety.[2] Footage of “real hoverboards” was also featured in the extras of a DVD release of the trilogy. A number of people thought Zemeckis was telling the truth and requested the hoverboards at toy stores. In an interview, Thomas F. Wilson said one of the most frequent questions he was asked was if hoverboards are real.[12]”

Hoax: early 2014. Funny or Die hoax with Christopher Lloyd and Tony Hawk (with apology after backlash).
REAL: the Hendo Hoverboard project which got some coverage at end of 2014, with kickstarter with 2015 deadline.

So, it looks like the interest in hover boards generated from the movie may foster some interest in funding and experimenting with the technology which underpins it.
And maybe that’s the most interesting thing about commentating on a movie’s view of the future and if it did or didn’t come true – that even if it didn’t ‘come true’ it might provide the unexpected catalyst for something really interesting which is spawned from the fantasy. Like the tech the overboard people are working with.


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