How soon is now?

By | 2015/09/19

Soon I’ll be 42. Ever since I was young, that was a big (and distant) birthday. If you’ve read or seen any of the adaptations of Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll know the significance of 42. 42, pronounced Deep Thought, the second-to-ultimate computer, after seven and a half million years of calculations, was the answer to the ultimate question: Life, the Universe, Everything.

The problem of course was no-one really thought about what the actual question was. In Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that’s what the Earth was invented for: to solve that puzzle. As a Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan, turning 42 always loomed as a pretty damn significant event.

Detailed Virtual Planet Earth

(Indeed, just before the Earth was destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, we discover in later books that a young woman worked out the real solution to everything was for everyone to be nice to one another.)

I grew up a science fiction geek, and I was amongst the first of the Gen-X crowd who grew up with computers. I had my first computer by age 8 or 9 and I never looked back. It was a Vic-20 with 3.5KB RAM (though I did have a 19KB RAM expansion cartridge), and at that early age I was learning to programme. This was somewhat driven by my early ambitions to grow up to be a Mad Scientist. Kids around me wanted to be doctors or train drivers or teachers – I was having none of that. I intended to be a Mad Scientist who would take over the world. I was, perhaps, a little overly ambitious, but it’s probably just as well I didn’t achieve that aim.

I grew up impatient for the future to arrive. Fuelled by science fiction then eventually the heady rush of the Internet, I was waiting for wrap travel and teleportation, subspace communication and zero-point energy, all the while blissfully not taking notice of the future happening all around me. The future kind of looks like this:

Future is here

For someone born in the 70s (and even more for someone older), it’s amazingly futuristic to pull a phone out of your pocket – a phone that runs at 1.4GHz vs the 1.1MHz of your first computer – and ask it to identify a song playing nearby.

It’s such a basic function so casually used that it’s easy to overlook just how damn futuristic and interactive a function it is: your phone records your voice, bounces it off the internet for functional interpretation, then records the ambient noise around you, sends that to a song database to for identification and in under 10 seconds since you first asked the question has told you what song you’re hearing. And if you want, you can click “Buy” and a few seconds later you have the song on your phone in high quality audio.

On your phone. I was watching an episode in Season 1 of The Golden Girls (1985) the other day and this was a ‘portable’ phone:

golden girls portable phone

Back then the height of modernity was having a phone that wasn’t nailed to a wall. With a long cord for the base unit and a telescoping aerial for the battery operated hand-piece this was practically space age.

Having a handheld device identify a song and using it to buy that music while you’re just out and about, untethered and in just seconds – hell, you have to be jaded to think that’s not impressive given where we’ve come from.

And the future keeps arriving. During the Apple launch of iPhone 6S for instance, they showed* live photos – not video, but photos where the phone automatically captures 1.5 seconds on either side of every photo. Or as my boyfriend said: “Harry Potter photos.”

It’s easy to become indifferent to the technological advances we’re seeing so regularly now: people moan and complain about a mobile phone that needs to be recharged every 24-36 hours compared to mobile phones that used to last 2 weeks without a charge, without once stopping to think about the huge functionality difference between the two types of devices. The latter you used to make the occasional call, send SMSs and maybe play snake. The former you use as an extension of yourself in a myriad of ways sometimes dozens of times an hour.

I’m sometimes reminded of those two parts of Charlie Chaplain’s speech in The Great Dictator:

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all.

Such hope in such a sentence for the potential of technological advantages to unite people. Yet, immediately before that hope was the fear:

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.

I’m reminded of part of a conversation I had with Gina Minks about technology and its impact. Actually, to be more accurate, we barely got to start the conversation (the lamentable side effects of being on opposite sides of the world), but the start of the conversation has been echoing for me for some time.

Technology is a great enabler in our lives – it enriches us and it emboldens us, and it allows us to unite in ways that were unheard of when I was growing up. In the early 80s I had (briefly) a pen friend in Germany. I sent him a few letters, he sent me a few letters, and there was usually a wait of about 6 weeks between each item of correspondence. Now I have friends all over the globe such as Gina who I can communicate with in real time without a moment’s thought. (And in the case of Gina and a few others, whom I’ve been very lucky enough to get to meet as well.)

But that commentary in the Great Dictator frequently haunts me:

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.

I see the great benefits technology and the future has brought us. And technology should continue to enrich peoples lives as it has so regularly been able to do so, but in equal measure I still depressingly see the above, too. Online trolls (or to be honest: bullies – for that’s what they are) getting their laughs from tormenting people; people quick to judge words without nuance, placing their own emotional spin on emphasis points without any consideration of what the writer actually meant. And histrionic social justice warriors urgently feeling the need to be offended to embiggen themselves often pile like a rugby scrum onto some poor innocent for the sin of being human.

In each case it’s a fine line: sometimes people with entirely ridiculous attitudes do need their ideas deflated. Sometimes you do need to apply Occam’s Razor to Hanlon’s Razor and realise people are being deliberately unpleasant, and sometimes social justice warriors may actually have a point.

But for so many it seems the future is a place where: “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little.”

We’re fortunate enough to be living in the future, but we need to accept that it comes with a responsibility to learn to listen harder to the “better angels of our nature”.

* I’m told HTC have already been doing this? Hence showed – I’m not making any claim as to whether they introduced it.

One thought on “How soon is now?

  1. Atro Tossavainen

    Welcome to the club, Preston, I’ve beaten you to it by about a month and a half, and every word you say rings so true – BTDTGTTS 🙂

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