I miss my future. It’s been taken from me.

I miss my future. When I was a kid, 21st-century food was going to be pre-packaged space pap. We would all, inevitably, be eating  paste out of tubes. It was futuristic. It was progress.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

The future of 1970: a Mars mission, 1981 style.

Today? We’re in that future. And I still cook fresh veggies and steak. Some of it from the garden (the veggies, not the steak).

When I was a teenager, plastic cards were going to kill cash. In the 21st century we’d just have cards. It was inevitable. It was the future. Get with the program. Today? We use more cash than ever, but chequebooks died.

When I was in my twenties, video was going to kill the movies. It was inevitable. We just had to accept it. When I last looked, movies were bigger than ever – didn’t The Hobbit, Part 2,889,332 just rake in a billion at the box office?

And, of course, personal computers were going to give us the paperless office. Except that today every office is awash with …yup, paper, generated by what we produce on computer, churning out of giant multi-function copiers that run endlessly, every second the office is open.

Did we fail to adopt all these things hard or fast enough? Is it just that technology hasn’t quite delivered what was expected – but it will, it will? No. The problem is with the way we think – with the faulty way we imagine change occurs over time with technology and people. With the way we assume any novelty will dominate our whole future. With the way we inevitably home in on single-cause reasons for change, when in reality anything to do with human society is going to exist in many more than fifty shades of grey. The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding – driven by the simplistic ‘progressive’ mind-set that has so dominated popular thinking since the Age of Reason.

I know all that. But still…I miss my future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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8 comments on “I miss my future. It’s been taken from me.

  1. About ten years ago there was a commercial with the line “Where’s my flying car? They promised me a flying car!” Based on most of the drivers I see, maybe the lack of flying cars is a good thing.

    The paperless office, ah yes. Still working on that one, we are. Back when that phrase was first bandied about I worked for an attorney in Florida. Typing multiple copies of the same document — say, a 200-page appeal to the Florida Supreme Court — was an agonizing process requiring the services of a skilled secretary who was, among other things, expert in the use of correction tape or whiteout and could type 75 wpm. Or you typed multiple documents using carbon paper (which was barely acceptable, except for the original). Even if you just needed to type six copies of a ten-page motion in an accepted legal format it was an all-afternoon job.

    Then came word processing. You set up a template. You typed up your document. You told the printer how many copies. It printed it out. You cackled in glee as you contemplated burying your brethren in the law under a landslide of printed bumpf. You loaded one into the fax machine at five minutes to five pm and put the other copies into the mail. Then you went home for dinner. If you needed more copies, you called up the document and printed ‘em.

    It was like Paradise.

    The only way we would have had a paperless office is if printing technology hadn’t improved to “letter quality” — but reasonably priced and efficient desktop printers made it easy to do the same old job with at least two orders of magnitude less difficulty. Therefore, no incentive to change the old way of doing things!

    As we speak I’m contemplating purchasing an old printer made for volume work — because I learned to proof and edit using print on paper. To me, it looks right, it feels right, thus it IS right. I suspect paperless anything is in our future, but probably not for another generation, more or less.

    I’m sure similar sentiments were expressed back when bronze was supplanted by iron.

    • Every innovation’s had its detractors who lament the loss. It occurs to me that one of the reasons the envisaged future doesn’t happen is because the new doesn’t functionally replace the old in every sense. It demands behavioural shift to work – which doesn’t usually happen the way people imagine. Sometimes ‘replacement’ works, but only where functionality’s direct – DVD killed video tape. But that was because it did the same thing, better. CD killed vinyl, sort of, for the same reason (but I see vinyl’s back now).

      Actually, I have this vision of some point in the far distant future where someone re-discovers that carbon makes marks on surfaces, re-discovers that wood can be pulped down into a flat sheet…and… :-) Actually I think that WAS the subject of a SF story, but I can’t recall which one.

  2. I’m definitely younger than the “where’s my flying car?” generation, but I’ve had an abiding love of Silver Age sci-fi that constantly espoused the future that…hasn’t arrived. I don’t think that we’re off the mark of what the future will be so much as positively terrible at its timing.

    Take the paperless example. I work around construction on a day to day basis. We go through paper like crazy, needing it for signatures, ease of access, and of course seeing the full blueprint at once instead of needing to scroll everywhere. For the functions needed in my work, paper does everything better. It’s cheaper, it’s easier to modify (just pull out a pen, done!), and it’s available in more versatile sizes than the equivalent paperless tablet or computer. Oh, and it requires no power.

    We’re missing the “final pieces” for the paperless office, and those little pieces of great battery life, absurd ease of use, and easy malleability are taking their time happening. But it’ll happen eventually.

    • Yes – pen and paper always works! It’s possible that roll-up screens with e-ink will change the calculation. The core of the problem, to me, is that humanity is a tactile species; we have to hold things. Flying electrons don’t cut it. Also there’s the problem of reading screens. Research work done here in New Zealand for the online encyclopedia ‘Te Ara’ revealed that on-screen reading speeds drop by about a third. There’s also the fact that screens – especially phones and tablets – only hold a paragraph or two; it’s extremely difficult to ‘skim read’ a page and get the gist. On the converse side, composing stuff works differently on paper than on screen, too; and I think that plays a part. To me the issue is that the expectation wasn’t fully thought through in terms of these physiological/psychological aspects. But we’ll see.

  3. ernestwhile says:

    Well, it’s a bit like fashion isn’t it? The haute couture you speak of was never very likely to be worn by the general public, however:

    *The vast majority of people (at least here in the United States) eat processed, corn-based “pap”. The food industry spends a lot of effort making it look like “normal food”, but it’s essentially all the same. Steak and fresh veggies are a luxury item for a lot of people.

    *In NYC I’ve found cash still washing around, but mostly it’s a product of bars and restaurants refusing to accept cards. In places where demand isn’t so constant and heavy, most merchants do the majority of their business with credit… and certainly ATMs have replaced most teller transactions. And I write maybe fifteen checks per year. Major transit systems have done away with coins and tokens in favor of cards of some type.

    *Movies may still be around, but a lot of their box office take comes from inflated prices, up 300% and more from when we were kids. And they’ve had to innovate: a lot of green screen and 3D nonsense. Video killed non-spectacle moviemaking pretty hard, though not completely. The same basic phenomenon happened when movies killed theater, and is happening again as online kills video.

    Of course, as we’ve discussed before, I think, I was pretty sure the future held thermonuclear devastation and slow, freezing death. Soooooo…. missing the future not always so bad!

    • It was Nixon, I think, who opened the doors for high fructose corn syrup as a cheap sweetener/additive in the US. We don’t have it here in New Zealand, except In imports. What I had in mind with ‘space food’ was the stuff you squeeze out of a toothpaste tube – epitomised, for me, by the pap eaten by Poole and Bowman in Space Odyssey, which Kubrick deliberately portrayed as baby food, symbolic of the sterile ‘space’ future he was portraying. As tactile beings, humans never did go for that…as you point out, a lot of effort is put into making even the manufactured stuff look appetising.

  4. Matt it’s still alive in our memories. :-)

    • Good point – it certainly is! Truth be told, what I miss (and remember) is the optimism of that age. Epitomised for me by the Saturn V story. Von Braun just went ahead and built it, all in less than a decade. Today? NASA’s new monster rocket’s going to cost billions more than it need to, and what’s the bet it’ll be killed, half way down the track, by some nervous budget spasm? To me it’s a failure of optimism as much as anything else. And it’s a worldwide issue – the same’s true here in NZ (don’t get me started on the endless debates over Wellington’s arterial motorways…every one of them less challenging than the hill-and-valley moving effort of the 1960s.)

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