The Future of the Past is Pretty Retro

Crystal ball
Photo by Cea.

An article came across my inbox the other day about Hilarious and Surprising Predictions of the Future…From the 1960s which I enjoyed very much.  It brought to mind a line from the
Rifftrax of Alien which I paraphrased for the title of this post. (As a side note, if you’re not familiar with Rifftrax, give it a look, you’ll probably really enjoy it).

It’s very common to find inverted anachronisms (for want of a better term) in fiction, especially science fiction.  It’s not really the author’s fault, they aren’t psychic (no one is) so they can’t be blamed for making some bad predictions. A lot of the time it’s not so much a prediction that failed, but the absense of a prediction where there should have been one.  For example, some I’ve noticed recently.

Isaac Azimov – Foundation – 1951

Nuclear power plays a major role in the book as the saviour of mankind. The loss of nuclear power is the greatest sign of the decline of civilization.  Small, personal nuclear reactors are in common use and no one is aware of the dangers of radiation. People even bathe themselves in radioactive glow as a fashion statement.

Larry Niven – Protector – 1973

Tapes. Everything is on tapes. Even the daily news comes on tape.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – The Mote In God’s Eye – 1974

Over 1,000 years in the future and people still need to wait to get their photos developed. Interstellar travel is perfected, but digital photography is yet to be discovered. Digital anything, really.

Dan Brown – Angels and Demons – 2000

You probably think this is going to be about the LHC or anti-matter.  But it’s something that isn’t really an anachronism, just something I found humorous. Early in the book someone is dismayed about being underground, out of cell phone contact and can’t get a “dial tone” on their phone.  I thought it was just something akin to a typo until later at the Vatican when a guard tests a cell phone by turning it on and waiting for a dial tone.  I don’t think that Dan Brown had used a cell phone by the time he wrote the book, or his editor for that matter.

I’ve been thinking about why it’s hard to predict the future of technology, other than the obvious fact that time only moves in one direction.  I think the reason is that most future technological territory is hidden behind only a couple very specific innovations. Unless you can see what those innovations are, you can’t see the miles and miles of trails running through the technological wilderness.

Take digital photography, for example.  How much has technology and society been changed by this one thing? Social networks couldn’t really exist without cheap cameras that can put photos online instantly.  Most digital photo processing wouldn’t exist without enough digital photos to make it necessary.  I would argue that Google Earth couldn’t exist without it, or at least not without being unrecognizable.

And digital photos couldn’t exist without digital storage. So many future predictions are off because of the lack this one technology.  Look at that first video in the article above. The wife at the beginning is shopping by remotely controling a camera at the store.  The concept of online shopping is there, but it’s so off in execution because it wasn’t thought possible to store the images. A small mistake leads to large consequences.

The problem with predicting the future, as I see it, is not because it’s hard to predict what’s going to be invented (even though it is).  But because it’s even harder to predict what’s going to be invented because of what’s going to be invented. Not only do you have to be dealt a royal flush once, but twice to get it right.

So it makes me wonder and be excited about what’s coming down the pike.  In 20 years the technological landscape is going to look so different that the computer I’m typing on now will look like one of those consoles from the 1960s.  It’s one of the reasons that I’ve become such a rational optimist. The future I envision right now will look downright retro, and I welcome it.