Living in the Future Feels Like Living in the Present

September 19th, 2012

About 10-12 years ago, I had lunch with an old friend of mine who is a smart guy with degrees in astronomy, law, and has also sold stories to Analog, among other places.  During our discussion, he proposed that things hadn’t fundamentally changed all that much since we’d grown up in the 1970s and 1980s.  If I recall correctly, he put forward examples like our bathrooms, clothing (ignoring style changes), jets were still basically the same they’d been for decades, and the like.

I disagreed.  By 2000, lasik eye surgery was common, we had the internet even though dialup was still common, we had cell phones, and more.

I’m sure ten-year-old me would be surprised and pleased by many of the changes.  Video on demand, awesome video games, giant flat screen TVs, thermal infrared cameras, movies like the Avengers and X2 that have good special effects and scripts, e-books, iphones/pods, and more.  This is how things look, once the strange future, which seems normal and common now.

The changes have been gradual.  There’s the (apocryphal) story of how a frog won’t jump out of a pot of boiling water if the temperature has been moved up slowly enough.  Well, you have to think hard to remember all the changes, from tiny black and white TVs with four channels and poor reception, to long, cold winters (at least in St. Louis where I grew up, and are rare now), as well as rotary dialing to call someone on the phone (which was leased from AT&T).

As hard as it is to remember these things, it’s much, much harder to FEEL the differences.  It’s living your everyday life.  We still do sleep in beds that haven’t changed too much, wear blue jeans/t-shirts or suits, and sit on the toilet daily and take showers.  There’s still the same sports on TV, even though the players have changed.  We still have jobs, worry about the economy, and take road trips or fly off for vacations and stay in hotels.

The gradual change is deceiving.  Take me back to the 1970s, or take boy me to the present, and it would be shocking.

I remember being excited how cool Space Invaders and Asteroids were when they appeared in the bowling alley.  They got old quickly when the newer games were brought in.

Sometimes I post a link to some new science result, or I see someone else do that, and comment “We are living in the future.”  And it’s true, but often abstract.  It’s the changes we see in our daily lives that make the largest difference, and we adapt to those changes fast, seeing them as “normal.”

When writing science fiction, or historical fiction, it’s a tightrope walk.  Characters living in the future will not be amazed by the technology they use every day.  It will be normal to them.  It has to be described well enough to be amazing to the present-day reader, but not belabored in an unrealistic way from the point of view character.  Likewise, living in the past is a different world to use now, and has to be similarly treated.  Older people have memories of those old TVs and fiddling with antennas, but the younger generations don’t.

There’s always going to be a lot of things that work fine, are functional and cheap, and won’t change very quickly.  Blue jeans are going to be around in 20 years, for instance, and I doubt most toilets will be different.  But how we consume our music and books, and how we communicate, are likely to be different in ways hard to imagine now.  However it will be, most people will adapt and think it normal, except for perhaps some older folks who fail to keep up with the changes and remember the past too clearly.

 

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