Seeing past the normalPublication date: 14 July 2013
Originally published 2013, in PC & Tech Authority
(in which Atomic magazine is now a section)
Last modified 14-Jul-2013.
Humans have a natural tendency to view their current cultural and technological environment as normal. Which it is, of course, for you, but beyond that tautology there's a tendency to forget that your local normalcy can, and will, change.
(This thinking is also a pseudo-conscious basis for racism: Not only are those foreigners all weird, but they're so messed up that they don't even know how weird they are! It's also the basis for conservative push-back against, for instance, the clear evidence of ongoing, and accelerating, climate change. People have trouble believing, again just for instance, that their world has changed and once-every-fifty-years storms are now coming along more often, even when they see smashed suburbs and flooded towns right there on the news. The edge of this evidence may also be blunted by the "just-world fallacy", the implicit or explicit claim that all people deserve what happens to them. If the world is getting more wicked and more people are getting killed by natural disasters, then God or karma or whatever are responsible, not CO2 emissions!)
Technology changes rapidly, but most of civilised humanity just slides their "normalcy window" along with the changes and doesn't think too much about it... until suddenly something particularly startling comes along. Or some trusted authority figure says that something particularly disturbing has come along.
Whatever the new thing is - Internet porn, encrypted communication, music piracy, designer drugs - it'll attract opposition from a lot of people desperately rationalising up some plausible reasons to complain, when the core of their objection is often just a sort of culture shock. Strange foreign people have suddenly sprouted right in our community! They may have access to our children! They may BE our children!!
Computers provide many, many examples of this sort of thing. Read 1950s sci-fi and futurism and everywhere are predictions that by 1985 we'll all be eating protein pills, wearing disposable paper clothing and commuting to work in personal helicopters. But the work we're commuting to will still have a typing pool, because almost nobody, even well into the 1960s, had the least inkling of the upcoming computer and communications revolution.
Way back in 1929, Henry Ford predicted great advances in "automatic machines". He was clearly talking about computerised process control, 20 years before the word "computer" meant something other than "a person who computes".
But Ford also made a complete hash of predicting even what future engines would be like, let alone cars and their environment. (He reckoned future highways would be made of rubber, but airstrips would still have grass on them!)
One of my favourite examples of this sort of failure is in H. Beam Piper's Fuzzy Sapiens, written in 1964 and set in the twenty-sixth century (the Fuzzy stories are today being rewritten and modernised by John Scalzi).
It is: "Grego went through alone, and down a short flight of steps to another door, brightly iridescent with a plating of collapsium, like a spaceship's hull or a nuclear reactor. There was a keyboard, like the keyboard of a linotype machine..."
And David Weber's Honor Harrington stories are set as far in the future from us as we are from Julius Caesar, but they're populated by baseline humans with moderately extended lifespans, without any artificial intelligence, or transhumanist... anything.
Eat too much? Well, we can travel faster than light, but the only way to get thin again is still exercise, if you aren't genetically metabolism-accelerated from birth. Sorry. The most culturally revolutionary thing about the Harrington stories is total sexual equality... though homosexuality seems to be almost entirely unknown, beyond faint allusions to permissive societies in which the stories aren't set.
(Weber obviously just likes to write Wooden Ships and Iron Men kinds of stories IIIIIIINNN SPAAAAACEEEE - Honor Harrington's initials are not an accident. So the reader has to just kind of go with the fact that he doesn't even attempt a background excuse for the absence of technology we can pretty much expect by 2050 AD, let alone in the fortieth century.)
Take a minute, look around you, and try to see what you normally don't. This can be quite literal. Every day, for instance, residents of the civilised world walk and drive down streets hung on both sides by numerous thick black cables, but most of us don't see the things at all, most of the time. We mentally compensate for them, in the same way as we compensate for distortion of a TV image when we're viewing it from an angle.
Imagine a kid in 2040 asking you about things like this.
"So everybody on the screen looked tall and skinny if you were looking at it from the side? And you couldn't see behind them?"
"So you watched cooking shows on this 'television' thing... and you couldn't even smell the food?"
"So buses and trains just went round and round, driven by another person who could cause a disaster at any moment, whether or not there was even anybody on them?"
"So... TV timetables, and bus and train timetables..."
"So people dressed up and put makeup on their faces and stood in front of a camera and pretended to be someone else... and this was somehow a big business? Why did anyone believe the same actor was now a different person?"
It's an entertaining mental exercise to try to look at the world anew and wonder what people in the future will find as unbelievable as we, today, find debtors' prisons, disposing of household sewage by throwing it in a hole or out the window, and the numerous public entertainments of the European peasantry that involved torturing animals.
(The tossing-your-sewage-in-a-hole thing may make a comeback, though. Heck, at the moment most of the western world uses potable water to flush their poo away. Viewed from outside our local normalcy, that makes about as much sense as running your car on single-malt Scotch.)
Don't kid yourself that this exercise will actually make you good at truly predicting the future, because that seems to be impossible.
But there's more to it than that. If you can account for your natural assumption that whatever's going on right now where you happen to be is perfectly normal and natural, you can often get an inkling of what could be on the way, by studying what's here already.
Back in 1929, Henry Ford presented his predictions, comprising one hit and about a dozen misses. But then he said, "individually men invent but little. We accomplish most by combining in new ways, principles and devices previously discovered".
The breakneck progress of Web sites and social networks and new ways of outraging corporations, governments and religions is all about this. Super-fast online communication lets anyone and anything be connected to anyone and anything else in ways which Ford, after a little sit down and a possible reconsideration of his lifelong commitment to put ethanol only in fuel tanks, would probably find fascinating.
(Actually, Ford probably wouldn't ask for a stiff drink no matter what happened. He hated booze almost as much as he hated Jews. Who he thought were, of course, in charge of the alcohol trade, and most other evil things in the world.)
The current rapid development of new physical devices may undergo a similar explosion, if home and small-business 3D fabrication keeps developing as it currently is.
But I don't think there's anything special about where I am, just because I happen to be here.