One thing I’ve seen noted about the future in Back to the Future Part II is that it more or less assumed certain trends would continue in the same way. Inflation was particularly bad in the 1980s, so there were jokes about how a Pepsi cost almost fifty dollars in 2015. Fashions remained colorful like in the eighties, only even more so, with no one predicting the grunge era in the nineties. Phone booths still existed, but used video phones instead of purely audio ones.
Newspapers were still printed, which is still true today, but they’re not doing all that well as an industry. Obviously it wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, but it still shows a general tendency in media set in the future. I mean, look at The Jetsons, again meant to be funny but still very much a product of its time. Space travel was very much in the public consciousness, so of course the show made it incredibly common. Because of the space race, science and math were being emphasized in schools, so Elroy studies astrophysics in elementary school.
This was about seventy years after H.G. Wells wrote of a future where people are incredibly stupid and class differences have reached the point where the rich do nothing and the poor eat them.
Whether we’ve actually gotten smarter or dumber as a society is a tricky question. Most kids nowadays know how to use computers, but the ubiquitousness of electronics to do math has affected our ability to do it in our heads. So it’s a little of both. I guess one thing to keep in mind is that history has both progressive and regressive periods, while future fiction more commonly has things just continuing to get either better or worse. That’s not always the case, however. Even the incredibly optimistic Star Trek predicts a nuclear war prior to the spirit of mutual cooperation in the show’s present. Futurama shows New York City being destroyed by aliens and rebuilt twice, the first time in a medieval style.
Whether this represents a decline in technology or just an architectural preference isn’t entirely clear, but we do occasionally see such jokes as a spear in the Museum of Ancient Weaponry being dated to the twenty-third century (which would actually have been BEFORE the destruction of New York in 2308). The episode “The Late Philip J. Fry,” which has the Professor, Fry, and Bender visiting multiple eras of their future, sees civilization repeatedly devastated and rebuilt.
Predicting technology is difficult, which is why it’s difficult to blame people who assumed computers would remain giant and graphics wouldn’t get any better, not to mention that pretty much nobody predicted how common the Internet would become. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did have something much like the modern Internet in use throughout the galaxy, although its computers were still huge. There’s some justification to this in that both Deep Thought and Hactar were made millions of years in the past; Earth is just a very backwater world.
Picture by Nils Cordes
And even though personal computers can be quite small now, mainframes still tend to be big. One significant difference in the Jetsons episodes made in the sixties and the eighties was that George’s work computer RUDI changed from a giant machine to a personal computer with a face on his monitor (although he’s still pretty big by modern standards).
Futurama has a recurring joke of showing technology that was already becoming obsolete still in use in the thirty-first century.
Look at Bender, a robot of human intelligence with a 1950s body design, an audio tape recorder, and a personality that can be stored on a floppy disk.
This 1948 comic was at least partially the inspiration for Bender’s design.
Not to mention that giving artificial intelligence to a machine made to build girders is rather absurd, but maybe that’s a legal requirement in a time when robots have voting rights. VCRs are still in use as well. A sign in the episode “Bendin’ in the Wind” had a sign on the Holland Tunnel saying, “Alternate Route: Just fly there!” Sure, it’s funny, but why would they keep the tunnel open at all if cars can fly? And “That’s Lobstertainment!” described an era of holographic movies in black and white without sound.
Holographic movies appear to have gone out of fashion by the show’s present, by the way. One aspect of that and other fiction that does kind of make sense is that, while video phones exist, audio-only ones are still pretty common. Even in The Jetsons, they were aware that people wouldn’t always want to be seen when making phone calls, so they had people putting on masks when their faces weren’t presentable.
I do have to wonder why Hill Valley in 2015 still has gas stations when garbage can be used for fuel, but this is sort of covered in Part III when Doc explains that Mr. Fusion powers the time circuits, but the engine still runs on gasoline. If that’s the case, though, why can’t fusion be used to power cars?
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the future to predict is fashion, because it’s illogical by its very nature. We tend to see clothes that are either totally exaggerated versions of those from the present, or not particularly based on anything real at all.
The Jetsons put rings around everything, which in the Futurama universe have become retro and only worn ironically. The 1950s future was also quite influential on Futurama, as seen with Bender’s design. There’s also music, which often tends to be glossed over. The only in-universe music that I recall in the 2015 segment of BttF2 was in the Cafe 80s, where they played Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” conveniently giving advice to Marty as well as being nostalgic. I mentioned here how George Jetson initially objects to Jet Screamer’s music, despite the fact that the style would have been more than a century old by that point. Even in Futurama, in a world in which rap music is considered classical, music from the twentieth century remains quite popular. In “Amazon Women in the Mood,” Morbo, Kif, and Zapp Brannigan all sing twentieth-century songs at the karaoke bar. Folk music sounds like it’s pretty much the same as today, and the term “alternative rock” is still in use.
Part of this is so contemporary artists can make guest appearances as heads in jars (or, in Devo’s case, very long-lived mutants), even though you’d think they’d probably have fallen out of favor even if they HAD remained alive. Mind you, it does strike me that there have been fewer innovations in music in the past few decades. I mean, the seventies saw the beginnings of heavy metal, punk rock, and disco; rap became big in the eighties; and grunge was all the rage in the nineties. What new styles have been created since then?