Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Future Was Then

From the bleachers on Tuesday, I watched 310 West Morris Mendham seniors file to the podium to receive their high school diplomas. Afterward, in their procession to the exit, many of the new grads already were reaching for their BlackBerries as they neared the door. Noticing this, I couldn’t help thinking about what had changed in the (ridiculously numerous) years since I strode be-robed in black with my diploma in hand – and about what, more surprisingly, hadn’t.

My teenage years were a time when hopes for the future were literally sky-high. In 1968, 2001: a Space Odyssey told us that within a few decades there would be passenger flights to the moon, sentient computers, and a manned mission to Jupiter. All of this seemed a reasonable projection at the time. Since the beginning of the 20th century, after all, the world had transformed from one dominated by horses and buggies to one with televisions, jetports, IBM 370 mainframes, car phones, superhighways, consumer electronics, satellite communications, frozen foods, and space flight. Why wouldn’t the next decades see changes just as radical?

It didn’t work out quite that way. I’m not dismissing the communications revolution which has put a phone, a wireless telegraph, an entertainment center, and an encyclopedia in everyone’s pocket. Still, someone who fell asleep a half century ago upon waking would need no more than a single day of instruction to handle the new IT well enough to get by – not proficiently but adequately. The tech really isn’t very difficult to use in the most basic ways. Otherwise, our Rip Van Winkle (the additional TV channels notwithstanding) wouldn’t find daily life that much different. The social changes in the past 50 years, such as the increasing dominance of women in academics and the workforce, have outweighed the consumer tech ones; yet, even the social changes already were clearly visible as trends back then. (Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends remain the same age though.)

The pace of change may pick up again. We are warned by futurist gurus of a coming technical singularity when machines become smarter than we are, thereby changing the nature of civilization forever. The projected date for this event keeps getting shoved further and further down the road. (One wonders if it is like fusion power: always 20 years away.) Unless, against all current expectations, biotech delivers on its early promises, I don’t imagine I’ll be witnessing a high school graduation 50 years from now. If somehow I do, I suspect that, as the high school band plays Pomp and Circumstance, I’ll still be struck more by what hasn’t changed than by what has. I also suspect that the most radical differences will be social rather than electronic or photonic.

What social trend is the most obvious at the moment? I’d say it’s the growing cadre of lifelong singles, and the increasing rarity of traditional two parent families. Outside of LGB circles, marriage is viewed ever more warily by young and old alike. I’ll make a bet that continues for 50 years. Anyone want to offer me odds?

Dick Tracy's Smart Phone (1967)

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