In Where’s My Jetpack?, Daniel H. Wilson takes a satirical look at the futuristic technologies that science fiction has optimistically imagined, but that have thus far not been invented, such as the outer-space hotel described in Curt Siodmak’s 1959 Sky Port:
“Tell me the general idea you have in mind … What is this thing that’s so revolutionary and so daring? Fantastic and at the same time logical?” … [Lee’s] eyes brightened as if an inner light had been turned on … “I need your assistance in building a hotel in outer space,” he [replied] artlessly.
Thus, the idea for tourism in outer space had been dreamed up even before Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth—and long before Buzz Aldrin’s and Neil Armstrong’s historic 1969 moon landing. In fact, even earlier, in 1954, the tourism company Thomas Cook had set up a register for people who wanted to be the first to visit the moon. The sky was obviously not the limit for these travel visionaries. Yet here we are in 2021, and we not only don’t have outer space hotels—we don’t even have jetpacks!
Why? After all, technological development has revolutionised travel again and again throughout history. True, history is not always a good predictor of the future. As Henry Ford famously said, “History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.” But looking at the past helps us recognise how much progress is possible. Remarkable innovations in tourism that would have seemed impossibly futuristic at one time have become commonplace within a generation or two. For example, rural labourers in late eighteenth-century Lancashire in the UK could hardly have imagined that their children would be taking railway trains from industrial mill towns to go on holiday in Blackpool. In the early twentieth century, Henry Ford’s affordable Model T democratised car ownership and the freedom that went with it. In the 1950s and 60s, motorways were celebrated in the UK and elsewhere as inspiring achievements. When the M1 motorway—the biggest civil engineering project of its day—first opened, much of the weekend traffic consisted of people driving for the sheer pleasure of it. And in the 1960s and 70s, the innovation of the package holiday got the western working classes taking jet planes overseas on holiday—which would have seemed extraordinary to their grandparents.
Those of us who are awed by these extraordinary developments in mass leisure travel should see ourselves not only as history takers, but as history makers. We should be able to conceive of a travel and tourism industry that could be transformed yet again. We should avoid the stifling focus on present technology that afflicts so many discussions of contemporary leisure tourism—a focus that is a kind of presentism.
Presentism usually refers to the pitfalls of evaluating the behaviour of historical actors through the lens of our present preoccupations. But it can also refer to the constraints that we put on our ability to envision future possibilities when we assume that we are limited by current technology, cultural norms and social structures. To overcome those constraints, we need to think more like science fiction novelists: we need to creatively imagine and describe technology—and scientific and political circumstances—that don’t yet exist. Those creative narratives are currently lacking in many of our discussions about the future of mass tourism.
The antidote to presentism is a future-oriented mindset. Leonardo Da Vinci epitomised this mindset when he sketched out a design for a helicopter in 1489—450 years before the first real helicopter, developed by Igor Sikorsky, took flight in 1939. Many political and economic thinkers have also had future-oriented mindsets that have enabled them to envision a future in which the development of new technology and new social structures would give humans the gift of increased leisure. For example, Marx hoped for a society in which the means of production would be so efficient that “it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” And John Maynard Keynes, in his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (written during the Great Depression), envisions a leisured future enabled by economic growth and new technology.
Thomas Cook, the nineteenth-century grandfather of modern tourism, was passionate about expanding the availability of leisure travel for “the millions.” He made leisure travel easier, for example, by inventing travellers’ cheques, and wrote enthusiastically about how railways and steamboats would facilitate leisure travel for UK residents, enabling them to travel more easily to (and around) Europe and Africa, and take round-the-world trips. For example, in an 1854 article for the Excursionist magazine, he writes:
To travel is to feed the mind, humanize the soul and rub off the rust of circumstance. To travel is to dispel the mists of fable and clear the mind of prejudice taught from babyhood and facilitate perfectedness of seeing eye to eye. Who would not travel at a penny a mile?
Today’s fraught issue of air travel’s role in climate change also warrants a future-oriented approach. We are rightly concerned about carbon emissions: many are keen to limit travel in order to reduce anthropogenic global warming. Yet many overlook—or fail to realise—that, given enough vision, investment and development, carbon-free flying may be only a generation away, via hydrogen, electric or carbon-capture-based technologies.
Many stories and films that envision the future portray dystopian futures in which technology threatens humanity (for example, Frankenstein), oppresses it (for example, 1984) or yields beneficial innovations (such as flying cars) only after it devastates humanity, for example in a nuclear war (Bladerunner). And many story lines celebrate human rebellion against alienating uses of technology. For example, in Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone’s character resists the pristine but emotionally empty high-tech future world that the film depicts by indulging his penchant for burgers, swearing and physical contact.
Imagining such dystopias can make for engaging entertainment (utopian fiction is boring for good reason, as Ewan Morrison has pointed out elsewhere in this magazine), but future-oriented thinking can just as readily imagine positive change, and technological progress can continue to create a better world, as it has so often in the past.
Recent innovations in personal tech, biometrics and the internet of things have reshaped tourist culture to some extent. It’s great that my suitcase can communicate with my transport and hotel to help it arrive safely at its destination (when that works!), and it’s great that my smartphone ensures that I can’t get lost in Paris and that I’m never out of reach of my home in the UK, when I’m visiting New York.
That said, personal tech may also dampen our enjoyment of leisure tourism in some ways. As Emily Thomas points out in The Meaning of Travel, no matter how exotic our destinations feel to us, we are also aware that everyone else is looking at the same google maps to navigate from A to B. Do we lose our individuality as the price of using this efficient navigation tool, and struggle to find ourselves? Such existential questions in the face of technological change are not new. For example, the nineteenth-century critic Francis Kilvert wrote that traveling by train rather than by coach and horses was like eating your dinner in the form of a pill—quick and easy, but devoid of pleasure.
And, while personal tech is useful, it won’t enable more of us to travel to more places. These days, critics of overtourism get the column inches, while undertourism is barely acknowledged. Eighty percent of the world’s population has never travelled internationally. Vast swathes of the world still generate few international tourists—and are visited by even fewer—primarily due to poverty. What if we could change this? Can we imagine a society in which the East African coast is as accessible and inviting to sunseekers as, say, the Spanish Costa Brava is to British tourists now? What about a society in which sub-Saharan Africans enjoy a transport infrastructure that features Elon Musk’s hyperloop and air taxis (currently at the protype stage) that could quickly and inexpensively transport them from town to airport, and then to Seville, Madrid and Malaga so that more of them could enjoy those beautiful Spanish cities ?
Many critics of modern tourism seem intent only on coming to terms with the obstacles to travel to and from areas of the world in which extreme poverty is prevalent, rather than thinking about how to systematically reduce those obstacles. It is fashionable these days to advance degrowth arguments that paint a dim picture of the legacy of economic growth and to suggest that our goal should be to shrink economies. These arguments reverse historical tendencies to view increased leisure and mobility as a part of social progress. They are based upon caution and fear about the negative consequences of growth, and they are too dismissive of its potential benefits. They are the essence of presentism.
In the past, even those who criticised capitalism had a more optimistic and expansive view of what was good—and possible. For example, in a 1967 article, the US socialist and civil rights activist Rustin Bayard favourably cites such a view, as expressed by the UK labour politician and theorist Anthony Crosland:
My working‐class constituents have their own version of the environment, which is equally valid, and which calls for economic growth … They want cars, and the freedom they give on weekends and holidays. And they want package‐tour holidays to Majorca, even if this means more noise of night flights and eating fish and chips on previously secluded beaches—why should they too not enjoy the sun? And they want these things not … because their minds have been brainwashed and their tastes contrived by advertising, but because the things are desirable in themselves.
The success of our society resides in its ability to provide things that are, as Crosland puts it, “desirable in themselves.” Individually, and collectively, we can decide what those things are. We should put on the table the idea of helping more people go further, faster—especially those who, due to poverty, have been denied the means to travel for leisure. Making that happen will require imagination and ambition.
So … where’s my jetpack?