Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Future

Sometimes when I look backwards I appreciate the present more. Here is an example: 16 computer ads from the 1980's. It's too easy to smugly joke about slow processors and small hard drives, but #14 makes me laugh for other reasons. The ad's caption proclaims "user-friendly software," and the image of the "micro workstation" shows a classically cryptic directory listing from the Microsoft operating system. The number of bytes free is duly reported along side the sad blinking command prompt that intimidated every new user. Very friendly indeed.

Ad #13 holds a special place in my heart. At age 13, I really believed that when I plugged this cartridge and special keypad into my Atari 2600 I was going to feel like I was exploring the galaxy. Instead... actually, I really don't remember... I'm only left with a vague sense of disappointment in a game that's still gathering dust in the garage. And yes, in case you were wondering, I was rather nerdy for a girl. And yes, in case you were wondering, we never clean our garage.

But what has come of our hopes for space exploration, the future, and moving forward? What about the ideas of Tomorrowland? P.J. O'Rourke visited the famous Disney attraction and wrote about our apparently beige and unimaginative future:
Let us not confuse imagination with innovation or even with progress. Man’s descent from the trees and adoption of the brilliant mechanics of bipedalism were innovation and progress of the first order. But what did we do with this progress for our first million years as humans? As best we can tell, we hung around the Olduvai Gorge and beat some rocks together to make “chopping tools.”

On the other hand, the Italian Renaissance was so imaginative that during its three centuries, practically everything worth imagining was imagined. And yet not much was actually invented in Florence, Pisa, or Rome.

Global imagination, like global climate, seems to have cycles—natural, man-made, or whatever. Sometimes what people imagine for the future is bogged down in the literal—call it “blogged” for short. The last thousand years of the Roman Empire, for example, were no great shakes. The Romans had all the engineering necessary to start an industrial revolution. But they preferred to have toga parties and let slaves do all the work.

The Chinese had gunpowder but failed to arm their troops with guns. They possessed the compass but didn’t go much of anywhere. They invented paper, printing, and a written form of their language, but hardly anyone in China was taught to read.
So in 2009, looking at cool new gadgets might be fun, but I'm going to keep my eye open for the truly imaginative. Of course, dreamers risk looking foolish, but Leonardo da Vinci didn't see all his ideas come to fruition either.

Also, I have to get in touch with O'Rourke's daughter about that system of pneumatic tubes for delivering stuffed animals. That's what the world really needs.

No comments: