Thursday, March 02, 2006

Back to the Future! (Part 1)

Tonight I'm going to try something completely different. Please bear with me ... if this is not your cup of tea, then take comfort in the fact that I'm breaking this into two posts. (Hopefully I will finish this and post the rest tomorrow!)

I ran across the picture above on the internet, supposedly taken from a 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics. The caption reads:

Scientists from RAND Corporation have created this model to illustrate how a "home computer" could look in the year 2004. However the needed technology will not be economically feasible for the average home. Also the scientists readily admit that the computer will require not yet invented technology to actually work, but 50 years from now scientific progress is expected to solve these problems. With teletype interface and the Fortran language, the computer will be easy to use.

Note the input devices: a steering wheel (instead of a mouse!) and a teletype as a keyboard! Take a closer look at the picture before reading on.

Pretty funny! At least it would be, if there was any chance of it being genuine. First off, I have always been under the impression that the term "home computer" wasn't coined until the late 70's. That in itself would be enough to make me skeptical. Second, I always assume that anything I read on the internet is a fake until proven otherwise. It took me all of about 30 seconds and a visit to Snopes to confirm that the photo is truly a fake: in reality, it's a modified image of a nuclear submarine maneuvering room, with an old color tv and teletype/printer superimposed over the more modern display and control console.

The point is, you can't believe anything you see on the internet. Really, it may seem like a cliché, but it's not so far from the truth. Just about any information you find must be examined with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially if it sounds fantastic or implausible. (Although, these days, many of the internet-propagated lies and hoaxes are more plausible-sounding than a lot of truths.) I'm amazed at how much junk I receive in my inbox or read on blogs that people just pass along without stopping to consider its source. I'll come back to this point in a minute.

The home computer picture above was originally created as a joke, then circulated as if it were true. But the point of the joke lies in the fact that it seems as if it could be true: it is not entirely implausible that 50 years ago someone would have imagined a room-sized computer affordable enough for home use. It was this detail that got me thinking (a dangerous habit!): about the past, the present, and the future. The question that popped into my head was this: how incredible would today's technology (personal computers, notebooks, i-pods, internet, cell-phones etc.) actually appear to someone living 50 years ago?

To really answer that question, it's not enough to just compare the current state of technology with the technology of that time period; you have to look at the expectations that people had back then with respect to their future. Of course, the answer will be very subjective: I could speculate as to what people imagined the future would be like 50 years ago, or I could ask them (my own parents, or even my grandmother!). But I don't really need to, because I know what my own expectations were 30 years ago. This wouldn't be much of a thermometer, if it wasn't for the fact that practically all of western culture's expectations with respect to the future of technology are founded on the same source: the explosion of speculative science fiction that started in the 1920's, and became truly popular during and following WW II.

The fact is, the idea of associating scientific and technological progress with a vision of the "future" is a relatively modern concept: a concept that was basically born with modern industrial civilization. Speculative science fiction as a form of literature arose for all practical purposes only at the end of the 19th century, with authors such as Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Before that, the notion that scientific progress would result in a future radically different from the present was not widespread. Throughout most of human history, small hunter-gatherer and agricultural communities were far more concerned with the present and the past than the future (usually the mythical past, or the knowledge and belief system passed verbally from generation to generation). The future was typically regarded as little more than a continuation of the present. Those who lived under the memory of the great civilizations of history (Greece and Rome in medieval Europe, for example), generally regarded the past as having been a "golden age" ... and the present and future as a decadent shadow of ancient greatness. The great civilizations themselves, in their hubris, tended to regard their own culture and technology as being the pinnacle of history. The future meant nothing more than a direction for their own manifest destiny, usually to expand and conquer.

Only once mankind could look back on his past and perceive the changes that have occurred, was it possible to extend that vision into the future. To imagine a future different from the present, you must be willing to question your world-view; to admit that you do not possess all the truths. And that, in itself, is a radical concept: but it's a concept that transformed the world and made possible that which could never have even been dreamed of just a few short centuries ago.

For as long as I can remember, I've loved science fiction, as a genre, both in literature and film. Science fiction fed and drove my vision of the future. I suppose it started with Lost in Space as a kid; the idea of the Robinson family winging around the galaxy in a flying saucer-shaped RV with their own personal robot appealed to me on every level. I also kind of had a thing for Penny. (That's right: not Judy! Penny!). Since I was a very timid child, the idea of leaving Earth and its teeming throngs behind and exploring deserted planets with just my family probably had a lot to do with the tv series' appeal (especially if I had Penny and my own Robot along with us!).

My children often ask me what kind of games I liked to play when I was a kid. Looking back, solitary adventures would have to be the predominant theme in my fantasy world throughout much of my preteen years. Our basement was an entire universe that could be transformed at will into the fantasy setting of our choosing: a spacecraft, to explore the outer edges of the galaxy; a submarine, diving to the uncharted depths of the sea; the heart of the Amazon rainforest; deep in some cavern beneath the earth; into the past, the age of dinosaurs. Wherever I'd go, it was somewhere remote, far from the crowds. Just me, and maybe my brothers and sister, cousins, and occasionally a few select friends.

I also loved the old monster movies: I watched Godzilla and the whole slew of related rubber-suited behemoths stomp Tokyo into rubble time-after-time. But it was space that captivated me more than anything. Besides Lost in Space, I was brought up watching the Apollo moon landings, old 1950's sci-fi movies, Land of the Giants and later, Star Trek. I remember watching Star Trek when I was far too young to understand it; in fact, I was convinced that Dad actually was Captain Kirk (when he left for work, he would beam up to the Enterprise, I guess!). Later, I discovered books... the ultimate fantasy escape. Reading was a truly solitary adventure, and science fiction could take you literally to any place or any time in the universe.

So my destiny was always pretty clear to me; other than a brief interval around the the fifth grade in which I was pretty sure I wanted to be a marine biologist (this temporary detour was corrected with the release of Star Wars in 1977), my destination was the stars. I would be an astronaut. There was no question about it. And I had it all figured it out: by the year 2000, I would be thirty-six years old! The year 2000! Nothing sounded as futuristic as the year 2000-- the 21st century, and the future meant space travel. Astronauts would be in great demand, and I would reach prime adulthood just in time for the space odyssey!

The Final Frontier, here I come!!

(to be continued)


At March 03, 2006 5:53 PM, Mark said...


Nice work here. I know what you mean about folks posting blog entries that they've spent exactly zero seconds verifying. At first I tried correcting them in the Comments section, but usually that just makes people mad. I never understood that. I would be embarrassed, but I would thank the person who taught me to know better.

Go sci-fi! It's truly an amazing genre that has provided me some great escapes, as well as making me think. I have one of my sci-fi works (a finished one) ready for posting and might put it out there next.

At March 06, 2006 12:09 PM, Mark said...

Sorry to comment twice in a row, but where the heck are those light saber photo trickery plans? Hmmmmm?

At March 07, 2006 3:25 PM, Mom said...


Best laid plans.... Funny how life is. It's hard to even imagine the changes that can take place in a person's life in 10,20,30 or more years. I'm looking forward to the continuing story!

At March 08, 2006 5:53 PM, Anonymous said...

I distinctly remember a shopping trip to a K.C. area K-Mart so you could purchase the largest fishing reel I had ever seen before that time. That must have been the "marine biologist" period. Remember those practice casts into the swimming pool?

Good post Jim...I enjoyed reading it.


At March 08, 2006 8:12 PM, Jim said...

Thanks Mom, Greg, and Mark.

I'll be continuing this strange essay / reflection as soon as possible. After that, I'll be posting lightsabre plans sometime in the near future.

At March 08, 2006 8:15 PM, Jim said...


Indeed, life can take some strange turns.

In some ways, it may be even easier to predict the future (technologically and scientifically speaking), then to predict the changes in our own lives!

At March 08, 2006 8:17 PM, Jim said...


I don't think I ever caught a fish with that reel!

But I think I already mentioned that I still have it; it's a handy tripwire-laying tool in my efforts to train our yellow lab Sam where the offlimits parts of the yard are!


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