From 1921 to 2021

From the perspective of a writer interested in Science Fiction world building — how much does the world really change in 100 years? What would it be like for someone from 1921 to visit 2021?

Part of the difficulty with this thought experiment is separating the shock of the person being relocated in time from the shock of stepping into and experiencing today’s environment.

Yes, it’s just a silly idea, but the answer depends of multiple variables. Who the person is, how wealthy they were, and what part of 2021 they visit.

For someone from a deprived 1920s British working class slum, a visit to a wealthy person’s house in 1921 would be an eye-opener in itself, let along being transported to 2021.

Someone landing is 2021 Las Vegas is going to get a very different experience than someone finding themselves in the Lake District in 2021.

What this means is that people live within personal experiences of relative ‘advancement’ and ‘progress’. 2021 would look a lot less intimidating for a wealthy Manhattan socialite from 1921 than it might perhaps be for a rural farmworker.

There are people today who are living ‘in the future’ in some respects. Not literally of course, but they are enjoying things in their life that most of us will only begin to access in the future.

Sometimes things turn full circle, aspects of the past return in the future (for example, London smog could possibility return in a slightly different way due to pollution levels). Cultures and fashions change, they are cyclical, they can go from toleration to intolerance, from one style to another and back again, demographics change, educational norms shift, attitudes alter, and so on.

But, a significant amount of the environment (especially in the UK) hasn’t changed as much as we might think. How much of 2021 would only look superficially different to someone from 1921? The cars are more advanced but work in much the same way. Would they shock someone from 1921?

Most of the principles about the technology could probably be explained quite easily. Would today’s mobile phone be ‘unthinkable’ to someone from 1921, or could they understand it as a Dick Tracy gadget? They had telephones, wireless radios, and cinema. The TV was invented in the late 1920s. And they had just been through a global pandemic.

What might be harder to explain is the cultural shift in terms of diversity and social behaviour. Or why people spend so much time looking at screens?

Raymond Loewy’s 1934 chart of design evolution. Strangely, the female body also seems to physically slim down over time. What does that say? Did everyone drink from a goblet in 1300? Are we all swimming naked today, as the exclamation mark suggests?

Raymond Loewy’s 1934 chart of design evolution showed how products become sleeker and more streamlined over time. How true is this today? For mobile phones and TVs maybe, but can the same thing be said for all products? Why are we not all wearing white boiler suits and living in hive-like space-pods?

World building the future requires guesstimation. In some ways, it’s a lot easier to make assumptions about AI and self-driving cars than it is to fathom the culture of a future society. If we were travelling 100 years into the future, the culture might shock us more than the technology.