Latest 3 Things

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

3 Are We There Yets

It’s 2010. In fact, 2010 is careering towards its closing season, and let’s be honest, it really hasn’t been what we were hoping it would be. Nearly three decades ago, 2010 was memorialized by Arthur C. Clarke as a year which would embody even more remarkable technological advancements than we were to have seen in 2001. We were even supposed to have a propulsion system so advanced that it would get us to Jupiter faster than the ship that had left for it nine years earlier. From 1982, 2010 seemed like a universe away, and while some things have risen up to the challenge (e.g. computers, cell-phones, and hairstyles) it’s difficult to argue that any of the aural tragedies produced by Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus are an improvement over The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’ and Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”. Like all future visions, though, we have overachieved in some areas, underachieved in others, and in a few rare occurrences, actually regressed. So in the interest of celebrating the year we’re not having, here are three big steps forward we’ve haven't taken on the way to 2010:

1. Up, Up and a Waste. You’d be hard pressed to find a prediction of the future back in the 70’s or 80’s that didn’t involve flying cars. Ever since the Jetsons were providing a projection of the 1950’s family into the 21st century (2062 to be exact), we’ve imagined our highways as our sky-ways; a third dimension to make traffic jams an antiquity to be laughed at like Coke in glass bottles and the Pony Express. But we’re no closer to flying cars than we are to living on the moon. Actually, we might be closer to living on the moon. And, we’ve turned traffic from an inconvenience into its own personal hell for each of us. In fact, the FAA just this year, granted preliminary approval for a vehicle that operates as both a car and an airplane. But it looks about as practical as a Zach-Morris cell phone and about as convenient as hand-crank car windows. The reality is that we’re even farther from personal flying cars than we were back then. American automakers had to nearly go bankrupt to work towards ending their four decade streak of making increasingly crappier cars that no one wanted to drive (unless they had to) and Japanese manufacturers are just trying to keep their cars from regularly killing people. Are these really the same folks you want creating devices that fly? I think we’d best stick to the ground.

2. 3-Duh. As quickly as television technology was progressing back in the 70’s and 80’s, imagining home holographic projectors didn’t seem like much of a stretch for 2010. From black and white to color; from technicolor to millions of colors; from tube to flat; from plasma to LED. The next step seemed obvious. Movie and television studios were quick to promise immersive three dimensional experiences in our own homes, and we imagined virtual reality with a grandeur that we had previously reserved for only wildest dreams. Unfortunately, the only difference between 3D forty years ago and 3D now is the color of the ridiculous glasses we have to wear. In the same time that computers went from taking up entire buildings to be able to fit in the palm of our hands, 3 dimensional technology has evolved from requiring paper glasses with red and blue lenses that were free to requiring battery-operated single-colored lens glasses that cost $150. Hooray, progress. Seriously, the first thing they should with 3D is try to make it look a little less like something only Japanese teenagers and kids who play Dungeons and Dragons do for fun on Friday nights. That or make it cool enough that I won’t mind wearing the same shades on my couch that my great grandmother does to go outside.

3. What are you doing, Dave?. Ever since computers started doing some of our thinking for us, we’ve been excited/worried about them doing all of it. As our keyboarded friends went from playing tic-tac-toe to chess, from performing arithmetic to math in multiple dimensions and from drawing lines to drawing three-dimensional worlds, we imagined that there would come a time when these machines wouldn’t need us at all. They would become sentient, and equal partners in our world, rather than simply electronic slaves. What we did not imagine, of course, was how large corporations (we'll call them "Microsofts" for reference) would dumb down and commoditize this technology to the point where we actually become slaves to them. Sure our computers are faster, brighter, sharper and smaller, but they’re no closer to thinking on their own then we are to figuring out to reliably connect to wireless networks, set up a printer or open attachments to our e-mail. Granted nearly limitless computational power and access to the world’s library of knowledge and information, we’ve done what any other enlightened and advanced society would do: we use it for porn, gossip and shopping. Come to think of it, it’s probably for the best that computers aren’t thinking for themselves, because when they do, I think they’re really going be pissed.

* * *

Okay, so it’s not the future we imagined. It’s certainly no Utopia. It’s more like a low-rent suburb of Utopia - call it U-troit. Things in U-troit are no picnic; some of the stuff we though would stand the test of time is crumbling, while some of the things we hoped would fade away are still going strong (can you hear me, Madonna?). But overall, life in U-troit is a lot better than things were forty years ago. Hair is combed down and socks are pulled up; to be any more connected with one another we’d have to all be holding hands, and our televisions have more channels than our SAT verbal score. Crime in U-troit is, well... crime. We’re smarter about energy, dumber about politics and know way too much about celebrities. There are more health clubs than McDonald’s restaurants, more Starbucks locations than bowling alleys, and our average life expectancy has gone up over 5 years. Besides, the folks in U-troit know one thing better than ever before: no matter how bleak things look, hope springs eternal, and you can't look down the road without looking up.


Denise said...

In re #3, even if computers aren't thinking for us yet, we act as if they are. Just as reliance on calculators has caused grade-schoolers to be incapable of performing basic arithmetic functions, reliance on spell check and text lingo is making our society incapable of forming correctly spelled and grammatically decent sentences.

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