Photo credit: Honda. I want me one of these, but better.
One of things that is always dragged up when people start discussing whether the science fiction of the past predicted the present at all accurately, is the old “Where’s my hovercar?” trope. Maybe it’s just that I don’t even like regular wheeled cars, but of all the many things I wanted in this so-called ‘Future’, a hovercar was pretty far down the list. A replicator would be a damn sight more useful. A robot butler even more so. I did like this golden vision a lot of 50s and 60s scifi presented though, where the future was bright and nobody had to work, or only at really interesting things they really wanted to do (never mind that they were often so hampered by their own prejudices that they utterly failed to advance gender equality, for example, but that’s another story). But, really, why are we still all working like dogs? And where are the futuristic, practical everyday inventions that would make life easier? Granted, we had the early big advances of washing machines, microwaves and dishwashers (and if you think a washing machine isn’t a big advance, talk to an elderly lady who grew up in poverty and spent literally hours every day just washing), but after that…well, I’m not seeing much. We’re getting hoovers that vacuum the house without hitting the furniture too much, but that’s about it. I don’t think it’s that there’s not a market for these things. Everybody loves a gadget that makes their life easier. Particularly when they’re in a household where (say) both adults work, and have a long commute, and have to juggle the kids and the housework and even though there’s two of them there’s never enough time….
Scifi doesn’t really explore this everyday stuff that much, in the same way that a lot of literature in general doesn’t discuss a huge amount of domestic life. Because a lot of it is repetitive, and thankless, and unexciting. A lot of it is, in short, drudgery (and a lot of it always counted as “women’s work”, which rendered it invisible). Nobody reads science fiction because the author had a neat idea about how a self-cleaning house might work, or because the protagonist is a cleaner, unless something out of the ordinary happens to the cleaner. They read it for the hovercars, and the other exciting technology, and the protagonist is a detective, or a space pilot.
And in real life? I think that part of it is that, beyond the easy devices to cook and wash and do repetitive tasks, it’s actually quite hard to do. How do you make a machine to clear up the toys? Will it know they’re under the sofa and in the cat bowl? Will it tidy up the cat? How do you make a machine to clean the bathroom, including standing in the bath to get at the mouldy bits on the tiles? How does it detect the mouldy bits? Although as to that, self-cleaning surfaces, your time has come. In the meantime: I want my robot housekeeper/chef/childminder.
As to the other half of the future I wanted: I blame capitalism. Specifically the rampant neo-liberal economics that has taken hold that means in that two-parent household, they both have to work full-time to make ends meet. And what are we supposed to do with any spare money? Buy stuff. What we should really be doing is working less, and spending time doing things. Improving our fitness by doing sports we enjoy, spending time with our children (or, you know, just anyone), engaging in recreational activities. It would massively improve physical and mental health. It would curtail this awful disposable culture of ours. It would mean the overworked could work less, and the unemployed get a job. It might still be a boring job, however. Whilst factory tasks are increasingly automated, service industries are far less so: again, it’s the same problem. It’s easy to make a robot arm to repetitively assemble car parts. It’s hard to make a robot waiter who can balance plates and take orders and interact with customers.
And that’s before we consider a society where money is still necessary. But that, again, is another story.