55 plus 55: It’s about time

Posted: 11 October 2019 in 55 plus, writing
Tags: , ,

It’s January 2001. Where’s my fucking jet pack?” — Warren Ellis

Given how many stories in fiction involve time travel, a significant number set in the future, it’s telling how often writers get it wrong. Not ‘slightly off’. Wring. And I’m not even talking about the far future, thousands of years hence. No, we’re equally incompetent about the near future.

Sure, there’s the view that we readers and pedants should stop whining, that point best and most forcibly expressed by people using iPads and mobile phones, evidencing technologies that weren’t even imagined by most of us only a few years ago.

Two things to note there.

“…a few years ago.” It still boggles my mind that the first iPhone was released to the world twelve years ago, that the same week in June 2007 saw the resignation of Tony Blair and the release of the first iPhone.

And, of course: “…most of us…”

Years back, while setting up a new phone and bluetooth headset, something occurred to me out of the blue that, in retrospect, was incredibly obvious:

I could attach a small speaker to the tiny bluetooth device.

Further, my new phone allowed personalised ringtones.

And it had a voice recorder enabling me to record someone announcing their name and the phrase ‘calling budge’… and to use that sound file as a ringtone.

Oh… Oh!

Final step – attach bluetooth device to chest, wait to hear “Fred calling budgie”, tap the device and… Bingo! Star Trek Next Gen communicator.

Yeah, this was in 2006. I know it was then, because several friends, including the Mr Ellis quoted above, pointed me at the time to a hospital in Northern Ireland already trialling something more advanced. I wonder whatever happened to the system? A similar system appears to be more used today in some US hospitals.

But I was unaware of any of that when the bluetooth/speaker/ringtone/chest idea hit me. What about those people who spend their professional life thinking about such things?

Some fiction writers have made the telling of entertaining stories set in the near future their speciality. And guess what: they’re always wrong. That doesn’t make them bad writers though, unless they’re unconvincing in their inaccuracies. (And yes, it’s still just plain weird now that the world of Blade Runner doesn’t appear to have mobile phones.)

It does though remind me of the reply the great and magnificent science explainer-to-the-masses, James Burke, gave when asked why he concentrated on the past, rarely turning his attention to the consequences, connections and threads of the future.

“Why don’t I predict the future? I like to be right.”

Writers have been trying to predict the future in fiction via the means of “falling asleep for decades or longer”, or via “visits to the gods”, for thousands of years; the Japanese legend Urashima Tarōut dates from the eight century. And the absolute certainty that it’s guesswork of the most desperate type ain’t stopping us yet.

When I was a financial director, I used to tell my CEO that as a business, trading internationally, we should be able to produce a very good estimate of incomings and outgoings, or out business, for the next six months. between six months and eighteen months? Yeah, a pretty good guess can be made; some estimates will be right, some wrong, but neither will be hugely out. More than eighteen months? It’s crystal ball gazing, depending on so much that no one can realistically forecast: exchange rates; interest rates; tax rates; staffing; whether our counterparts in other countries do well, or badly; political stability, or otherwise…

And anything beyond three years? You might as well toss a coin.

There’s a tale told about the post-war aftermath of the late 1940s and early 1950s. I’ve no idea whether or not it’s true, but if apocryphal, it’s one of those stories that should be true.

The story is this: either President Truman or President Eisenhower (the story varies as these things tend to) gets the biggest brains in America to the White House; scientists, philosophers, and the like.

Their task is to predict for the president and his successors what will be the biggest challenges facing America through to the end of the 20th century.

And – so the story goes – turns out they were right on some things and wrong on others, astonishingly wrong on others.

They suggested that hypersonic aircraft would take passengers to Australia in two hours. But manned space travel wasn’t even seriously considered. Satellites might be possible, they apparently advised, but they would have very short lives, hence prohibitively expensive.

They’re supposed to have predicted the huge increases in cancers, but epidemics and AIDS didn’t even occur to them; neither did the huge increase in heart disease. They apparently predicted the acceptance by the masses of automation, and the massive increase in personal communication, but of course, it would be by telex.

(Burke mentions this in his book The Day The Universe Changed, about how any predictions, any understanding, relies upon the paradigms of the day; when the paradigm changes, so does everything else relying upon it. As an example, if you think that space is made of eggs, you design your instruments to search for omelettes. And if you don’t find them? instrument failure.)

Maybe those apocryphal Good and Great in the White House should have read Edwin Reynolds, who wrote in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Dec. 30, 1900:

“We may be able to carry apparatus on our persons which will enable us to communicate with another person similarly equipped, anywhere on earth, without the intervention of wires. We may be able to see persons at long distances as well as to talk with them.”

Teddy Roosevelt1901. A great year. Baseball’s American League declared itself a Major League, Clark Gable was born, and Teddy Roosevelt became President. And like their descendants 100 years later, newspapers and folks in general were debating the new century and what was likely to happen during it.

The Daily Register, in Mobile, Alabama lamented in 1901 that while it had been long predicted that man would learn to fly,

“he has not made any striking advance in the direction of his hopes…. Possibly, the 100 years of experiment teach us that we will never fly in the air as do the birds, or, if we do so, it will be merely for the pleasure of the thing.”

And the Chicago Tribune in the same year wrote

“The purely material may claim less attention and (greedily pursued riches) come to be less regarded.”

Ah, if only, eh?

In more recent times, the dystopic far future has been the predicted norm, while the near future has usually been portrayed as identical to the present, amended merely by slight advances in the field of technology.

Yet the experience of only the past few years suggests that, like those scientists at the White House, we don’t have a fucking clue what’s coming our way or how it’s going to affect us.

And in general, comics’ writers seem to acknowledge this by sticking technology in their stories that can’t exist yet, or won’t be commonly available for decades.

But they still get it wrong.

OK, we don’t have a Lex Luthor, a Tony Stark, a Shuri, a Riri Williams, a Reed Richards, an Angela Spica, or even a Bruce Wayne, though the latter would – as Bob Ingersoll pointed out some years ago – be in jail for breach of fiduciary duty to WayneTech stockholders.

The writers are not just wrong in the inventions and advances they predict, but in ignoring their larger effect upon society.

If we did have such men and women and their inventions, there’s no way the social environment of the richer nations would be remotely comparable to their current analogues in our world.

The 2008 Presidential election was the first to take place in the era of YouTube. Can anyone seriously argue the election process hasn’t changed markedly the past dozen years because of the availability of YouTube, instant video via smartphones and the like?

Alan Moore – in, of course, WATCHMEN – made it crystal clear that the new engines created by Doctor Manhattan had destroyed the old motor vehicle industry. That’s one of the few ‘wider implication’ stories, and it’s presented almost as a throwaway scene, something that of course would happen.

Does anyone think that the inventions created by Stark, Shuri, Richards, et al wouldn’t be available online? Hell, I could download 3D designs now. Notwithstanding the 1951 satire, The Man In The White Suit, what would clothes made of unstable molecules actually do to the fabric manufacturing industry? How would commercial aircraft design differ, with the existence of Quinjets and Fantasticars?

And why should it stop there? Back to James Burke, who at a Q&A session at the Royal Institution a few years back broke his self-imposed rule and predicted that nanotech ‘makers’, right out of TRANSMETROPOLITAN, would be available inside thirty years. And yes, they’d be phenomenally expensive… to start with. Until someone uploads the design specs to the internet. And within a decade after that, they’d be cheaper, a lot cheaper. Thing is – again, harking back to the social implications – economics and politics is, in a major part, the allocation of scare resources. What happens to politics and economics in the absence of scarcity?

There’s an online version of his talk available: I’d recommend it to everyone, without hesitation: Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll.

The responsibility of any storyteller is simply that – to tell entertaining stories. They owe no loyalty to their ‘fans’ (c.f. Neil Gaimain’s blog entry ‘George R R Martin is not your bitch‘) but only to their contracts, and the person they look at in the mirror: to deliver the best written stories they can.

But while any fiction requires suspension of disbelief, it surely has to maintain an internal integrity; ignoring the social and cultural implications of near future inventions – accurate or otherwise – serves no one in the longer term, least of all the reader.
 
 
The usual ‘something silly’ tomorrow; after this week, I suspect we need it even more than usual.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s