Saturday, February 28, 2009

Welcome to the Future

You know how when you're a kid, you watch the Jetsons or read science fiction books or whatever and think how awesome the future is going to be? You wish with all your might that you lived in a time with robots, flying cars, talking doors, and omniscient handheld computers, a world where you can hurtle through hyperspace to colonies in other galaxies or just pop to the moon for a long weekend. Everyone would walk around in a continual state of amazement, feeling lucky to be alive in such a grand time.

Then you grow up some, and you realize, to your great chagrin, that you basically do live in the amazing future of your dreams; it just doesn't seem quite so thrilling. What is probably my favorite t-shirt in the world says, "They lied to us. This is supposed to be the future. Where is my jetpack, where is my robotic companion, where is my dinner in pill form...?" We feel ripped off. Yes, there are pocket computers in the form of iPhones and BlackBerrys; robots can vacuum your living room floor; cars can run on electricity, biodeisel, fast-food frying oil, and human fat; GPS navigators ensure you never get completely lost; customer service lines use speech recognition software to direct your calls; prosthetic arms can be controlled by the brain in surprisingly complex ways; you can read basically any newspaper in the world from the comfort of your apartment...but somehow life still isn't one great, happy, futuristic party.

Probably the most obvious argument is that we just haven't gotten there yet. Smartphone technology is still rather primitive, speech recognition and production by computers has turned out to be surprisingly difficult, and some significant medical and technological advances just haven't developed yet. But then what about the myriad things that are within our current abilities but that still aren't widespread enough to have actually changed the world, or the things that have changed the world, just not quite in the ways we expected?

I blame capitalism. I don't think anyone even envisioned our portable computer-things belonging to one of a few big brands that are based on proprietary platforms and compete with each other, and I'm pretty positive nobody ever envisioned that access to the awesome futuristic technology would be dependent on a $60+ monthly contract. And who would have thought that we would have the technology to make significantly more efficient cars but that consumers would still prefer SUVs? Even throwing aside the various alternative fuel sources for cars, at this very moment, we have the ability to make cars vastly more efficient than they are. (Europe's average MPG is twice the U.S.'s—40 vs. 20.) Somehow I feel that the constant competition to make a profit undercuts the desire to actually make the best possible product. I guess the significant point is that most futuristic books and movies take place long after some great unification of the world's governments or, at the very least, take place in a world with a few very strong governments. In this case, there is most likely a concerted unified effort to provide basically the same products (or at least different versions that can easily interact with each other) to most if not all citizens for a reasonable one-time purchase price. Similarly, futuristic worlds always have long ago run into a giant energy crisis, and it seems everyone wants to live in a very efficient, well-planned way. It seems the lesson is that the awesome future we always dreamed of is dependent on a benign socialism of sorts, and most of all, it's dependent on a government that encourages research and development in a big way. Either that or a giant, hopefully also benign, behemoth world corporation.

I'm betting on Google.

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