"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."*
As a little kid I imagined future technology: cars without steering wheels, computers that spoke with us out of thin air. Humans would be different, all the same basic size and shape, carrying little communicators and wearing comfortable clothes.
Well, I was partly right. We’re getting the communicator thing down so well that I even the Sci-Fi writers of my youth didn’t imagine their power and ubiquity. And I don’t think the touchless, voice-controlled computer is very far off. (Our cell phones have voice commands, but they’re more reactive than interactive. Like the government.) We still have to steer the car, though Google is working on a Driverless Car right now; in fact, it already works for their engineers. I don’t think clothes have really changed very much.
I got one thing about future tech very wrong: I imagined that future being farther away that it turned out to be. I imagined the new world without me or you still in it. I thought the world of my childhood – in terms of our tools and toys – would be basically the same in my middle age, that technology would advance more slowly. I – we – would be long gone before cars looked like this.
That’s a 2012 Cadillac. Click to enlarge.
They say that one sign of intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory concepts in the mind at one
type time, and accept them both as possibly valid. So I give you a couple of concepts to ponder: A typewriter and an Apple iPad. (The latter, you’ll notice is just a screen with keys, no keyboard at all.)
Click to enlarge.
Who would have thought that in a short time we would type without buttons or keys, and publish without paper? But if you sent out today to buy either a 1937 Royal desk typewriter or an Apple iPad, which would be easier to find? And easier to use? I’ve used a Royal typewriter and it was hard to make it work! People who did it for a living were called typists. It was a hard job for low pay and it no longer exists in the world, as far as I know.
Do any companies still have people who do word processing – transcribing dictation? I don’t know. That was common in the 1980s and into the 1990s. Guys like me would dictate memos, letters, etc., with recorders, then take the little tapes to be transcribed. Then we got our work back printed on thinly pressed slices of tree.
Which reminds me of one Fail in the future tech that’s here so far: The paperless office we were promised 15 or 20 years ago. I’ve been trying to accomplish it for years but I can’t get other people to cooperate. I guess that can be a rant for another day.
I guess one of the most compelling ways in which computer technology has changed our lives so far is that anyone who wants to do it can be a writer and a publisher. For example, you’re looking at a page of a digital periodical, an occasional publication for which I do the writing and publish using a free medium. And over the years, Metaphor has been read over 20,000 times. That’s right, over twenty thousand deliveries. Not too shabby for a little blog with one frequently complacent writer, no paper, no costs, no charges, no advertising, and a very passive delivery system. And anyone can do it.
What do you suppose would have been required for Benjamin Franklin to put his Poor Richard’s Almanac into the hands of 20,000 citizens? A lot of money, time and effort. A lot of trees, too.
So here we are, the same bunch of primates who thought push button phones, the TV remote and the CB radio were pretty cool. And we’re blogging and using VOIP and feeling thankful that the VCR went the way of the Dodo before we had to take an adult ed class to program that sunofabitch.
It occurs to me, though, that it’s all teetering on a house of cards. I have a copy of Leaves of Grass that was printed before the Great Depression, and it survived on shelf somewhere because no special system was required to sustain its existence there. Not so with the Great Terra of Infinite Terabytes of human thought that we now have suspended around the planet in vast server farms and countless hard drives. All of that requires an economy to keep it going. What would it take to make all the stuff we know as modern life online just go blip and disappear? Not much.
If Congress and the President fail to keep the lights of our tenuous, practically fictional economy burning next week, how far is it from default of the US to all the whirring drives of the Internet falling silent and blank? I mean we’re talking chain reaction, global economic meltdown, am I wrong?
I worry more about things like that, than whether Google+ is better than Facebook; more about America without Social Security and Medicare than about keyboards without keys.
New prime directive: the cloud must be sustained.
*Quote: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.