|The way the future was
||[Nov. 28th, 2007|02:40 am]
So I'm not the kind of person who likes reading stuff on line--my online activity is usually restricted to refreshing the Quest Blog every thirty seconds--but nevertheless, I am enjoying and wish to encourage you to read the daily installments of The Future: A Retrospective. So apparently there was some book called Future Stuff published in 1989 that presented new consumer products to be available, alledgedly, in the next decade; this guy Leonard who I might as well admit I know has taken these products and researched their eventual fates, whether they ever got made, how that worked out for them, etc. What's most interesting is how wrong eighteen years in the past could be about ten years in their future (if that makes sense), and the strange world it posited: with dozens of little household gizmos each doing a little part of what a computer now does (which I admit is pretty much how I pictured the future at one point, just more and more specialized gizmos, like a bourgeois kitchen counter) and "smart cards" (of various kinds) that store information on the cards themselves (which I admit is how I always pictured those "credits" chits future people always used to carry). As Leonard says, "Future Stuff had a tragic faith in the ability of people to keep their data under their control." Anyway, you should just go read the site, it's fascinating.
And so then it got me thinking about how the past is wrong about the future, or rather how it's often half right. For example, George Orwell correctly predicted that the future would be "a boot stomping on a human face forever," but he failed to perceive that in the real future the face and the boot would belong to the same person. Less abstrusely, I wanted to mention some of my favorite gaffes from the annals of SF, such as:
1. In Asimov’s I [Stole the Title from Otto Binder] Robot, it is a trivial matter to make robots think, but constructing a voice synthesizer is so difficult that early models use sign language, a series of pneumatic fingers being far easier to program. This is a strange error in retrospect, but of course older robot-makers took it on faith that their main challenge would be in the mimesis of the human body, as though consciousness would, in some Nietzschean way, follow automatically. "Homer, see that stuff inside their heads? That's why your robot didn't work."
2. I think it's in The Reefs of Space by Frederick Pohl and Jack Williamson that computers of the future are correctly predicted as being, you know, really good at math. But the catch is that it takes so much time to convert things to binary and punch out the punch cards that most people just ask an idiot savant to do the math for them; idiot savants just have a better interface.
3. There's another Frederick Pohl book--I read so many dozens of these things at a certain point in my life that I can't tell one from another any more--in which the main character has to run a search for some piece of data in a futuristic library. He starts the search, and then has to kill time for a week waiting for the search to be resolved, because that's how long it takes for a computer to search a library. (Actually, Dan Brown has something similar happen in The Da Vinci Code, but that’s not because he can't predict the future, that's because he can't perceive the present.) Does anyone know which book this is?
Also, if anyone has any favorite similar glimpses of the future, I'd be interested in hearing them.
My favorite gaffe is that Molly Millions has 4Mb of "hot RAM" she needs to unload in Neuromancer... It's stuck with me all these years because it was so ludicrous when I read it.
I wonder how those heady corporate statements from the dot-com days would stack up against the stuff this guy has dug up. I remember reading an article about the "video still camera" when I was in college -- our professor had written about the projected differences between film cameras and the future tech of digital photos... A lot of people were really worried about the changes to identity that people go through in the "virtual world", although I wonder how many of them would have predicted flame wars and lolcat crap...
Flamewars seem like just a speeded up, informal version of the kind of thing you can find in old newspapers. Like if you read Mencken's or Dorothy Parker's book reviews, and I'm sure there's other stuff. I think maybe it could have been predicted if one were cynical enough about human nature.
I don't think anyone could have predicted LOLCats. Though perhaps they could have predicted the idea of insane and quickly changing trends. In Eon (1985) Greg Bear has the people in a post-singularity society (it seems that they are to me) subject to insane and it seems fast-changing trends. Their trends are kind of beyond lolcats and into stuff like choosing to have their body be a floating sphere because it's more versatile.
One difference is that all newspapers are moderated...
The idea that people cycle through micro-fads (as I call them) has been a gripe about the present since the...twenties? Probably earlier. We only lacked the idea of the medium in which these fads would be enacted. It used to be dance crazes, or remember in grammar school when all the girls would suddenly all the girls would be wearing a certain brand of accessory like a bracelet or anklet, and it kept changing? (This may not apply to you, POP, specifically, but perhaps you have a related memory?) Faddish radical body modifications is pretty much a correct prediction, except for some of the "undo" kinks, which have not yet been worked out...
One problem with correctly predicting this future is that if you had you would have simply sounded like a hateful, misanthropic cynic. "In the future one quarter of the population of America will be engaged writing or reading pornography about children's book characters." "In the future hit television shows will focus on pressuring people to eat insects." Etc.
What was the worry about change in identity? I mean, in retrospect, the main change was that most people became even bigger jerks, but since most people were big jerks already this isn't muck of a change.
I once read this book on CB radios written, of course, in the '70s, which proposed that truckers on their CB radios would create what it did not quite call a virtual community, but that's clearly the concept the author was going for. An interesting attempt to extrapolate that failed because the technology wasn't up to it yet.
Perhaps SF writers would be better off, when discussing computers, to simply make up prefixes so they don't look silly in three years. My future computer has 700 Qb.
2007-11-28 05:28 pm (UTC)
Re: Molly Millions and the Hot Ram
> 700 Qb...
You'd think other people would generalise too... I've been trying to figure out what 4Mb of hot ram would be over the years, and my favorite solution is that it's a really long password or code -- like trying to sell someone's credit card number or house keys...
People were worried about the "fracturing of identity". It wasn't a fear of people becoming schizophrenic, but researchers and academics were curious what would happen when most of us hid behind avatars and had different masks we put on for different situations. It never amounted to much.
William Gibson had never even used a computer when he wrote Neuromancer, for what it's worth.
I know! Johnny Mnemonic has a similar problem [he has 180 Gb of disk space, or something], although that's nothing next to that quote from Bill Gates about how 640K of memory should be all anyone ever needs...
As much as I love to poke fun at Bill Gates, calling him on that is like getting on Gore's case for inventing the internet.
My favorite retro-computer-futurism in those early Gibson stories are all the cyberspace modems being external devices from the cowboy's computer.
> all the cyberspace modems being external devices from the cowboy's computer.
My first modems were! They were huge things too, although eventually they got down to the size of a small paperback. My friend had an early one where you put the phone on the cradle and it talked through that. I loved it when my local node finally hit 2400 baud...
One of my "Young Nerd" magazines (either Owl or Chickadee or 3-2-1 Contact) once predicted that sometime in the near future (I don't remember what target year they said, but I know it had to be before 1996, because I remember thinking it would happen before I had my driver's license) cars would hover, and make popcorn, and be so easy to drive that you could get your license at 8 years old. Why, why would a magazine make that kind of prediction in the 1980s, after all the previous predictions about diamonds and merwomen on the moon proved so laughably untrue?
In that vein, my favorite "incorrect predictions" are the real ones
. My favorites from the page:
"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
H. M. Warner, co-founder of Warner Bros., 1927.
"Television won't last. It's a flash in the pan."
Mary Somerville, pioneer of radio educational broadcasts, 1948.
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corportation (DEC), maker of big business minicomputers, arguing against the PC in 1977.
That's a great page--it's interesting that so many are negative predictions, of the "that would never catch on" kind. I still hear surprisingly often (for example in The Future a Retrospective
itself) the related claim that paper books will perdure because people fetishize the physicality of them, an argument I think is silly. People who grew up with books fetishize books, but in a generation or two there'll no longer be a motivation to. Some people still collect vinyl albums, but it's not exactly a thriving medium. Book readers (which most of us here are, in contradistinction to the rest of America), I believe, speak like Mary Somerville, convinced our own medium of choice has enduring value, because of...some reason. Of course books will survive as antiques and perhaps as novelty/gift items, but other than that they're bound the way of CDs, by which I mean wax cylinders.
People have been predicting the eBook for years, but I'm still really really skeptical. I do most of my reading and writing these days on a computer [and, honestly, rarely read books outside of my Spanish class] but there's something really tactile and warm about a book. If I want to use a computer for entertainment, I'm going to surf the web, where there are a million things out there for me to read, or watch a movie or play a game. All of those are far more flexible than the printed page. By contrast, books are so much more convenient than a computer, although I did recently read "Bridge to Terabithia" again on my computer, kind of on impulse. I wouldn't set out to read "War and Peace" that way, and I wouldn't get much reading in on the subway, even with a notebook-style laptop...
but there's something really tactile and warm about a book.
I agree, but I think Hal's right in that that's our "what we're used to" talking. People prefer the scratchy sound of a record over the seamlessly smooth sound of a CD sometimes. I get where they're coming from, but I don't think people who had never heard a record in their youth would.By contrast, books are so much more convenient than a computer, although I did recently read "Bridge to Terabithia" again on my computer, kind of on impulse. I wouldn't set out to read "War and Peace" that way, and I wouldn't get much reading in on the subway, even with a notebook-style laptop...
Enter the eBook Reader, or whatever it's going to be called. (I think Amazon has it already; a Krindle or something? Ah, Kindle. Right here
.) It has all the benefits of eReading such as being able to carry 10 or more books, with the potential for swapping stories when you run out of storage capacity I'm sure, in the size and weight of one book.Edited at 2007-11-28 05:23 pm (UTC)
That sounds better than the last ones, but it won't sell like an iPod does, for instance... I wonder if they've every considered targeting people who carry around a lot of books, like law students -- my sister's law books always looked like they'd give you a backache if you carried 'em around for too long, and it'd be really useful to do a keyword search, rather than looking things up in the index.
They actually sell eBooks at a kiosk in the Borders on 30-ish, but it's kind of silly looking. I used to download Project Guttenberg books to my Palm Pilot when I was in college, but it's just easier and nicer to read a Dover edition and then pass it on to friends... I guess one of these days, when wood costs more than it does now, it'll be something we all want and need...
That's a great page--it's interesting that so many are negative predictions, of the "that would never catch on" kind.
Yes. Those and the "we know all we can ever possible know about X subject." I just...wow. "If I close my eyes, you can't see me!" rationale, I guess. Damn crazy.
I still hear surprisingly often (for example in The Future a Retrospective itself) the related claim that paper books will perdure because people fetishize the physicality of them, an argument I think is silly.
Heinlein has a thing about that, too. In most of his stories, all books are available on computers, but his quirkiest characters have real, paper books that are incredibly valuable.
People who grew up with books fetishize books, but in a generation or two there'll no longer be a motivation to. Some people still collect vinyl albums, but it's not exactly a thriving medium.
I think the difference is, though, in the difference in quality. CDs have IMMENSELY better sound-quality than records, and no drawbacks that I can think of. Now, digital books have a few obvious benefits (dear god, the end of most of my storage problems all at once!) but I think they have a few drawbacks, the biggest one being a lot of people seem to get much more eyestrain from reading off a screen (is it a brightness problem?) than off a page.
Of course books will survive as antiques and perhaps as novelty/gift items, but other than that they're bound the way of CDs, by which I mean wax cylinders.
Out of curiosity, what do you think will happen to comics? Books don't generally have the collector's value/complete collection/buy, sell and trade...connotations (dammit, I know there's a better word for that, but you know what I mean, and my brain is broken for a few days) that individual issues do. (Which is why trades haven't displaced issue sales, unless I'm mistaken.)
I know some audiophiles who would champion analog sound over digital, although I'll admit I can't hear what they're taking about.
Reading off a screen is certainly more straining than reading a book, but that's with current screens. There allegedly already exist readers that magnetically align ink into letters on a white screen that emits no light, making it indistinguishable from a printed page. This is the future of reading (and perhaps mutatus mutandis computer screens?) I believe. Because how many times have you longed for a searchable book? But mainly because of printing and distribution costs, all but eliminated.
Now, there does exist a first-edition rare-book collector community, although I admit I am less a part of it than I am with comics collecting. These people are certainly just as rabid as comics fans (in Eco's Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna a book dealer gets so excited about finding a rare edition that he...uh...spoiler, never mind), and they may be just as large in numbers, but they're certainly a smaller percentage, which is where the difference lies.
So the question is, why are comics fetishized. I think it's clear that originally the reason people collected back issues was because that was the only way to get the back story. The X-Men kept referring to Phoenix, and you have no idea who Phoenix is because she died years before you started reading, so it feels like you walked in at the middle of the movie, and you have no choice but to start buying older issues, even though they're expensive. This was my introduction to collecting, and really the limit of it--I want my story, and I'll pay for it if I have to. Since comics were considered disposable, they were rarely reprinted, and so the original had not fetish value but actual value.
Things are different now, and for a great many comics its pretty easy to find reprints. (Also, it might be worth noting, continuities keep getting rebooted, so for some readers there's less impetus to look to the past.) But comics still have the "advertisement" of collectibility, a lingering signification that the old comic is worth having as a thing unto itself. Many comic collectors now are simply people with mental problems, seeking vainly for that gem mint 10.0 copy of a story they will never read.
Since I predict the eventual death of paper text, I of course must perforce predict the death of comics of all strips as a printed medium. (Comics themselves will never die; thank you, Gabe and Tycho.) But we have seen how rapidly graphic novels have established themselves at comics' expense, and I see no reason why the trend should reverse. But switching to an all-graphic novel formula, ala manga in America (but, significantly, not manga in Japan), has some problems. As the system stands now, artists and writers get paid on a monthly basis as they produce issues--will they wait six to twelve months between paychecks? How can highly collaborative mainstream comics adjust to a more book-trade like payment plan? Historically, we have learned that if you give comics artists an advance, they will squander it and do no work (this is what ended Tundra Comics).
So I don't know if graphic novels will fully supplant issues, but ultimately I don't think it's because of the fetish value of issues. Old issues will be (rightfully) treated as antiques, new issues will be hoarded by neurotics, and then paper will disappear.
Of course, by that time we may all be illiterate/living in caves, so who knows?
I would be perfectly happy to read all my books off a screen if the screen wasn't so bulky and bright. Since I live in the future, I often spend a lot of time reading "pornography about children's books characters," which is only available online. I've read several novel worth of the stuff, and I really don't miss having a little book to fetishize about.
When the book readers have the following qualities I will happily get rid of most of my books:
1. about the size and weight of a mass-market paperback
2. droppable/sturdy and moderately water resistant (for bathtub reading)
3. easy to read screen (like you describe)
4. easy to "underline" and write marginalia
I would also like it if the book could read itself to me. I have that functionality with my mac already and have used it with great pleasure. But the computer does not yet meet criteria 1-4.
I'm definitely a book fetishist, but your criteria are pretty good, though I would add that the device should be extremely energy efficient. If there's one advantage that a book will probably have for the forseeable future, it's that once you buy it, it won't cost you any more money. Even as I typed that, I thought, well, you need light to read in the dark. And if you keep your books, you need space. Quibbling aside, I am really resistant to acquiring additional devices that need to be charged or need batteries. A "broken" book is also easier to repair (e.g. tape a ripped page) than a broken electronic device.
Actually, now that I think about it, books also don't become technologically defunct. It would be a nightmare if literature was like music, where I'd have to reacquire my entire library every few years as the format changed from vinyls to cassettes to CDs, etc.
And if the world ends not by zombie apocalypse but by catastrophic EMP wave, my books will be able to perform their original function while electronic devices would probably become part of the barricade against roaming cannibalistic hordes.
2007-11-29 07:12 am (UTC)
Re: I guess I'm not a fetishist
In the far-future space-opera-with-everything setting that has been rattling around my brain for years (perhaps someday it will become an actual RPG, except I have this suspicion it's been done) there is a guild of obsessive librarians who try to acquire at least three print copies of everything they can get their hands on, for storage in their three planet-size libraries, evenly spaced around the galactic disc.
Because multiple backup copies are your friend, and backups that don't require electricity are even better.
(In the event of a galactic disaster, it is unclear how anyone would get to the library planets to retrieve the backups, alas.)
Format changing is a good point--I have lots of stuff on 5 1/4" floppies that I may never see again, but my kindergarten papers are readily available. However, after some casting around, we've reached some kind of level at which simple documents at least can be converted between wp programs.
Although it's true you need light to read, I've heard rumors about a large, free light source some peopel use. And, frankly, we need light to do a lot of other things, reading is just another item on the list that includes shaving and not falling into the toilet. So a book is relatively simple to extract data from, in a way that many other forms of data storage are not. I'm assuming some nerd will figure out a way to play mp3s on a futuristic mp8 player.
I expect the future to provide me with a portable phone/camera/computer/book reader/compass/mp3 player that I plug into my computer when I get home. I will be the last person to acquire this device, but I assume it will arrive.
The point that broken books are easy to repair is an evocation of that constant source of vexation to me, the increadsing difficulty of fixing modern devices with glue. You can glue a record together, you can even glue or tape a tape together, but good luck gluing that CD.
I admit to being a book fetishist, perhaps in three separate senses of the word, but I would also read things off the screen if such a screen fit the fourfold criteria above. I would read things while snuggling with books.
I do not yet understand how the collector mentality operated in the so-called digital realm. On the one hand, I like "collecting" songs in iTunes. On the other hand, I don't know if it's possible to feel the same way about a song, whose perdurance on a playlist is clearly provisional, as one felt about a CD or record. Does owning a stack of photocopies feel the same as owning a book?
I have a very long provisional answer half-formulated, but I am tired.
2007-11-28 06:18 pm (UTC)
Actually I wrote that Future Stuff entry to mock that argument. ("In conclusion, paper books are magic.") My point was that the people who fetishize books as they are, are the most likely to end up paid to write about the future of books. However, trying to do an unreliable narrator on top of everything else in that entry was probably overkill.
Hm...since I fetishize both books and panties, I just took it literally. After all, sounds liek something I'd say...
I pointed this out to thecomicman
a while ago, but there's a cool web page called Technovelgy
which identifies new technology that was predicted in science fiction literature. A class I took pegged Frankenstein
as the first SF novel. If we run with that, Mary Shelley should get points for organ transplants, which would be pretty good for the first SF novel ever written. (I wanted to say she gets points for defibrillators, too, but she was actually very vague about how Frankenstein ultimately animated the creature.)
As far as I know, Aldis's Billion Year Spree first championed Frankenstein for "first SF novel" status. Although I guess if it was a commonplace at the time he was writing, and he just echoed it, I wouldn't know.
Scott has been reading some book of Arthur C. Clark predictions or something. Same kinda thing.
"In the future, everyone will have a Ceylonese catamite..."