The future as envisioned in childhood has not exactly come to pass. I watched the Jetsons, I enjoyed Lost in Space. The Wonderful World of Disney, and a visit to Disneyland inspired visions of wonder. I particularly enjoyed the Carousel of Progress, a rotating building where we viewed four stages filled with animatronic people living in ever more advanced worlds. The future was impressive: filled with videophones, flying cars, people movers, bubble cars, and monorails. Meanwhile, vacations to the moon or Mars seemed inevitable.
So where is this future I expected? In the movie, Back to the Future, part two we saw flying cars in 2015. That’s only three years from now and I see no evidence that flying cars are going to be here anytime soon. The car companies will be lucky to remain in business making cars that roll on four wheels, let alone cars that fly.
And yet, there are things about today that do fit the vision of my childhood. On Star Trek, they had wonderful little handheld gadgets called communicators that allowed them to talk instantly with each other, while the ship’s computer could use the device to locate them precisely. The crew would wonder, “where is so-and-so” and the computer would always be able to announce the deck and room or tell the questioner sadly that “so-and-so is not aboard the Enterprise.”
Obviously, the cell phone has more than fulfilled that Star Trek fantasy. So much so, in fact, that the simple communicator seems almost quaint by comparison with reality. Cell phones not only allow us to communicate, but they also permit us to play games, listen to music, find out where we are thanks to GPS, give us directions, and allow full access to the internet.
And of course the internet is something, along with ubiquitous personal computers, that no one in my childhood or teenage years ever predicted. We’re amused now to read of prognosticators from back then announcing that the country probably needed only a dozen or so computers for the foreseeable future. Of course there are now more computers than there are people in the United States.
Douglas Adams, in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, imagines a hand-held device, an electronic guide book, described as “the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom” for a galaxy spanning civilization. The entry about the Earth is very short: “Mostly harmless.” Most of the contributions in the Guide are made on a strictly ad-hoc basis, with most of the actual work being done by any passing stranger cobbling something together. Not surprisingly, Adam’s fictional device has been compared to the internet as a whole, and Wikipedia in particular.
XKCD, a web-based comic, has the protagonist securing an Amazon Kindle and commenting, when asked why he got it: “Free cellular web access. Even if I spend months broke and drunk in a strange city, I’ll still be able to use Wikipedia and Wikitravel to learn about anything I need.” His girl friend then yanks it from his hand and rubs off the Amazon Kindle label to discover the words beneath: “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
My wife gave me a Kindle for my birthday three years ago and it does remind me of the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Only a third of an inch thick, with the length and breadth of a paperback book, it also reminds me of the ubiquitous data pads that appear in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Not only does it resemble those fictional devices, it works in a seemingly magical way.
The screen uses e-ink and looks like a piece of paper. So much so, in fact, that when I pulled it from its packaging and saw the instructions on the screen telling me to plug it in and turn it on, I was startled when those words vanished and were replaced by different words when I hit the switch. They were not a plastic overlay or piece of paper. It was just the screen, which uses no power at all once a display has been generated. Only when the pages are “turned” does power get used. Which explains why its battery life is measured in weeks.
At any moment, if I have an interest in a book, I can simply tap a few buttons and download it instantly to the device in less than sixty seconds. Not only are books available for sale at a fraction of their printed cost from Amazon, both they and a few other places offer hundreds of classics, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to The War of the Worlds to Huckleberry Finn, all for free.
Although I can’t have a vacation on the moon yet, and I don’t have a robot servant to cater to my every whim, nevertheless there are bits of life in this second decade of the twenty-first century that are more or less like what I saw portrayed on TV growing up.