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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.

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