The Future is… When Exactly?
Computing interfaces have come a long way over the years. I think we can all agree that the mouse and keyboard of our current day pc’s is highly preferable to the tape spools and cable jacks of the WOII era beasts like the Colossus. With the fairly recent integration of practical touchscreen interfaces into devices such as the iPhone, a long dreamed of vision of advanced haptic interfaces seemed one step closer to reality.
With this in mind, I’d like to direct your attention to the following video created by The Astonishing Tribe. I came across this clip recently and it got me thinking. Is all this really going to happen? There is little doubt in my mind that the envisioned interfaces will be technologically possible in the future – if not in 2014, then some time in the next few decades. If anything, mankind has proven to be ridiculously resourceful when presented with a practical challenge.
Technological feasibility and practical applicability are not the same thing however. Watching videos like this one or hearing talk along similar lines often seem like displays of unfettered optimism as to what the future will bring. Though I’m all for optimism, it begs the question whether or not all this is really going to happen. Is it really practical to have a display built into your bathroom mirror where it’ll be prone to fogging up completely? What about mirror displays in general? The idea seems to detract from what mirrors are actually for, seeing your reflection. Also, functions like transferring files by literally shunting an icon onto someone else’s device seem gimmicky and clunky, especially for a handheld mobile device that is supposed to be usable independent of location. And finally, the see through display desktop screens just seem impractical, fairly distracting and a NSFW nightmare waiting to happen.
Now, I don’t want to get too negative. Despite some impracticality, all this technological optimism can serve as inspiration for actual innovations. In a lot of ways videos like the one embedded here remind me of that particular brand of optimism that was so prevalent in the USA in the 1950s and 60s. Of course, some did advocate caution and a certain level of social responsibility towards the consequences of technological developments. Take for example Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics. Wiener was acutely aware of the potential social consequences of cybernetic technology and the pragmatic nature of the US military with regard to its appropriation of technology in order to create ever deadlier weapons. With the after-glow of the nuclear detonations over Japan still radiating on the western horizon, the overall zeitgeist was possessed by a grand sense of technological optimism. Mankind could master any challenge that came on its path. It is this attitude that eventually led to mankind’s first steps on the moon (of course, the ‘friendly competition’ with Sovjet Russia also played a major role in this and there are still conspiracy nuts out there that deny the whole thing happend). This same technological optimism is also present in cartoons like The Jetsons and the video embedded below, showing the future of the USA’s highway system.
Though the overall visions of these two examples have proven to be overly optimistic, elements of them have proven viable. More importantly, they are both clearly products of their time. The Jetsons are just a depiction of the classic, nuclear family transplanted into a world full of pervasive technology – kind of the chronological opposite to The Flintstones. The Magic Highway USA video is inspired by that same technological optimism crossbred with the importance of the automobile to the suburban family and ideas of individual freedom. Another example I’m dying to bring up is the one thing I hope little boys everywhere still dream about while they’re fumbling with their Lego’s or playing around in a sandbox (showing my age here, aren’t I?). I’m talking about the jetpack. In some ways, the jetpack is the most amazing concept ever. It allows personal flight in a small package, it grants more individual freedom than a Harley ever could, it goes really fast and it looks awesome. Why doesn’t everyone have at least one of these? Well, because jetpacks are also dangerous, impractical and a technology that doesn’t really solve any particular problem. An idea that sounds good in theory can prove to be difficult to build, unable to meet expectations or just plain dangerous. More importantly, the jetpack was also clearly a product of its time. The first jetpack concepts arose in 1920s science fiction and actual attempts to build them were made in Germany during WOII. At the time, Germany led the way in the development of rocket technology and as always, the war effort required advances in applied creativity and ingenuity. Later, the idea gained in popularity during the 1960s, undoubtedly as a result of the space-race between the USA and the Sovjet Union. Regardless, strapping a rocket engine to the back of a human being has proven to be a bad idea in general. A boy can still dream, though.
Of course, not all predictions end up stranded along the wayside of time’s tireless advance. Some have proven to be downright prophetic. Take for example D.W. Griffith’s statements made in 1923:
“Motion picture libraries will be as common as private libraries – more so. (…) For the world will have become picture trained so that words are not as important as they are now.” (link)
Griffith is often considered to be the finest director of the early American movie industry. His focus on moving images was clearly inspired by his own profession but also by the general buzz that still surrounded cinematic technology at the time. Despite Griffith’s partiality to the topic, he wasn’t wrong.
Or how about Neil Ardley’s 1981 writings on the home of tomorrow:
“The computer will be able to take the images you record and assemble and treat them in all kinds of ways to produce a whole range of special effects of your very own. And you will also be able to use the computer to produce unusual moving designs and patterns, rather like making video cartoons or electronic paintings that move. Then you can put your video shows together with your own electronic music, and create the most stunning experiences — perhaps even a totally new art form of the future!”(link)
Ardley was a couple years ahead of Apple’s introduction of the revolutionary Macintoshpersonal computer in 1984. I’m not saying that Ardley directly inspired Apple. What I’m saying is that idea of the computer as a user friendly media machine clearly resonated with the computer science community of the time and that it was merely a matter of time before someone attempted to combine a similar vision with the available technologies.
Right, where am I going with all this? Well, for one thing, it seems that technological optimism is a thing of all ages. Whether we’re talking about cinema technology in the 1920s, rocket technology in the 1960s or touch screen interface technology in the 2010s, the phenomenon is basically the same. Also, as Cory Doctorow implies in his essay Radical Presentism, a prediction says more about the time in which it was made than it actually does about the future. Seen in this light, the interface predictions made by The Astonishing Tribe gain an entirely new dimension. Suddenly they’re an attempt to come to terms with a society that’s becoming increasingly saturated with pervasive information technology. Browsing a handheld device seconds after waking up and brushing your teeth in front of a mirror-screen support this idea. The needs to share information and to carry your information around with you are seemingly represented by the transparent screens and the handheld devices that can share information at the flip of a wrist. I guess my earlier attempt at critiquing the visions presented in the video as improbable and unrealistic is beside the point. The video is not so much about what the future might look like as it is about what technological issues occupy today’s society.
Doctorow, Cory. ‘Radical Presentism‘. Tin House Blog. 6 October 2009. Retrieved on: 5 October 2010. http://tinhousebooks.com/blog/?p=410
Wiener, Norbert. ‘Men, Machines, and the World About’. In: Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort, ed. New Media Reader. Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2003: p. 65-72