Go Back to the Future, Today! How Well Did Doc and Marty Predict Today’s Tech?

October 21, 2015
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4 min read

It’s been almost 26 years since we first traveled to today’s date in history — well, Hollywood history that is. When “Back to the Future Part II” delivered on the 1985 promise of, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” we forgot the four years (and cast members) we lost and simply basked in the technology of what was to come… Today!

While the exact date of Oct. 21, 2015, is only indelibly burned into the cerebra of the most fervid “Back to the Future” followers, even casual cinemaphiles will recall this 20-minute suburban prognostication above all other classic scenes in the Zemeckis/Spielberg trilogy.

Now, with hindsight and history in our arsenal, we can not only discern the true tech that came to fruition, but finally examine the quintessential questions of how what once seemed like magic finally came to pass. Also, let’s see how to take what we’ve learned since 1985 (and ’89) to see how some of the promises that fell flat may one day fly.

Doc’s Dual Devices

Right

Not only was Hill Valley apparently the epicenter for the Google Glass beta, but two years later, Doc Brown was still able to grab a pair on the cheap right after scoring an Apple Watch. Look closely if you don’t believe me. Right after the DeLorean zaps into today’s busy skyways, Doc is immediately getting streaming traffic updates on Google Maps. A few minutes later, he was able to keep Marty and Jennifer bone dry with an exact countdown of when the deluge would subside.

(Some purists still argue that Doc received the weather information on his Glass device and then merely checked the time on his regular watch. I find those people fundamentally lacking in imagination.)

Wrong

What’s wrong is how it all would work. In 1985, communications convergence barely existed. Even when I started my career covering tech in the late ’90s, we knew our clamshell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) would one day be conjoined, but how was still a mystery. You can’t blame us — back then, cellphones required a sherpa to carry the battery packs, the PDA was analog or even an actual person and the only way to play Pac-Man on the go was a pared-down version on my watch.

We knew Doc was getting information on his Google Glass and Apple Watch, but we just accepted them as mystical devices that could stream anything. The concept of packing data on something we wore, or culling part of that information exchange from some ethereal web of data that also transmits wirelessly, was beyond our comprehension in a pre-Internet world.

We also couldn’t have predicted the pitfalls of this data transmission nirvana. While Doc was a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) pioneer, today’s IT department would most likely see him as simply another whiny pain looking to have his data and wear it, too. Allowing Doc’s device dalliances in any practical matter — especially one palatable to businesses transmitting more than weather information — requires solutions such as mobile device management to be pragmatically possible in both security and speed to scale.

In 1985, all we thought we’d need were Windows to get to tomorrow. Little did we know the consumerizaiton of IT was initially in the hands of a company no one had heard of yet.

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Thumbprint?

While Marty’s wall fax firing wasn’t the clearest of crystal balls, we can certainly learn a few work-at-home lessons from his dismissal by Mr. Fujitsu. Transmission of data and financial transactions sit as the biggest woes currently plaguing real-world mobility. With almost 30 percent of corporate apps being pushed out sans the most basic protection, sharing of information through airdrops to dropboxes is a very valid reason for CISO insomnia. Marty’s thumb scan of corruption inside his briefcase might seem like an odd tech choice to us today, but is it truly that different from when we use biometrics to thumb-scan into our Apple Wallet or Google Pay apps?

This same theory applies to when young Marty thumbs a few bucks to contribute the 60-year campaign to fix the clock tower. In 1989, we simply assumed the transaction was recorded on a 3.5-inch floppy that transferred data at night to a central server. We now know that with encrypted data, public key infrastructures to make sense of that data and wireless delivery of that information is more seamless and practical. We also know that the apps required to make this all possible are easily intercepted and ready to burrow into our benign phone and tablet functions to siphon away dollars one transaction at a time.

I have few doubts that if “Back to the Future” ever followed Marty to work, we would have seen some more app appreciation as well as a mobile security solution to keep every thumb-press safe and secure.

Down With IoT? They Are in Hill Valley!

Aside from ridiculous wall faxes, the McFly house wasn’t completely off-base on where our lives are in the real 2015, and where they are ultimately headed. The Internet of Things (IoT) is on the same tipping point to change work and home life as mobile was in 2006. While thermostats seem to be the first foray into this new world, we must accept the word “things” at face value as we plan for the next wave of IT management systems.

The McFlys only had a door access and a few appliances that seemed connected to a central server. Some without imagination will even argue that only natural language recognition was needed to drop a hydroponic fruit or hydrate a pizza. I say as long as we’re dreaming, dream of centralized control and delivery of services.

As I watch and rewatch “Back to the Future Part II,” I can’t help but think of each part of the McFly home tied to IoT delivery. Each system was being driven by a ubiquitous operating system or mediation platform that bridges the vast chasm we are about to nest inside sooner rather than later.

Drive, Reverse, Roll, Pitch, Yaw

So the white elephant still remains in the room: Flying cars, hoverboards or anything we can use to defy gravity is still way beyond our grasp. Part of the reason is we still don’t ahve a cost-effective way to achieve liftoff. But let’s say for a second we could cost-effectively defy the natural pull of -9.81 meters per second squared constantly taking us towards the earth’s core. Flight would still be a terrible idea.

We need more help control and heads up to danger before we all traverse the z-plane to make our daily commute to the office. We must move beyond systems simply managing or enabling our lives. We need IT to be cognitive, predicting our course corrections faster than our innate biological processes could ever hope to deliver.

Not every piece of tech in “Back to the Future Part II” came to pass, but they were all close enough to be plausible to forgive their lack of being prophetic. Now, what can we dream of for 2045?

Rob Patey
Storyteller/Dreamweaver, IBM

Rob has been waxing poetic about IT topics since the late 90s for technology organizations large and small. While career and life have given him a journey th...
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