On Our Way To The Future

My younger son came to me and told me he wanted to write an article about how much the internet had improved life.  Before he explained what he meant, I formed a picture in my mind.  It wasn’t what he meant.  His article, if he writes it, I shall submit to one of the more political sites.  This article is the one that formed in my mind, and it touches on things that I have mentioned in passing in other blogs, but which – frankly – deserve a mention of their own.

When I was little – and when you were little, probably too, if you’re any older than thirty and perhaps if you’re any older than twenty – when I dreamed of the future it had a Jetsonish tinge.  Not that I ever thought the Jetsons were really science fiction – as with most TV science fiction none of us who read the stuff took it seriously, we just “liked” it because it at least introduced some of the ideas to “normal” people.  (Unfortunately it introduced some very odd ideas too.  One had to go around explaining to everyone that no, this stuff we read was not about discovering strange new worlds and seducing the aliens in them.  Oh and that, almost certainly, there would be more to aliens than a different forehead.)

On the other hand, and even though in a way we knew it wouldn’t be true (at least by my childhood it was obvious things weren’t moving in that direction where I lived.  I wasn’t sure about America.  I mean, everyone knows the future comes from America and maybe in America they had all this stuff) we tended to dream of flying cars, housekeeping robots, three hour work days and machines that did almost anything.

I suppose if my personal addiction had been to romances and I’d imagined true love coming the way I imagined the future coming, I wouldn’t have known it when I fell in love – or I would have found it very hard to navigate a relationship that would be different from the dream of love in books.  Fortunately I read stuff like Simak, who portrayed love in a rather realistic way.

But it meant I didn’t recognize the future when it came.  And I’m not alone in that.  In tons of panels, and even the man on the street, you find kind of a disconsolate, drippy grief that we don’t have flying cars, we don’t have trips to Mars, we don’t have any of that.  We’re in fact – we say – living in the twenty first century as though it were the twentieth.

Don’t get me wrong, I want all that and the tourism to the moon.  With extra robot-served ice cream at that.

But even before my kid came to me, I’d been thinking back at the things we do have, and how fast they’ve spread.  It is only that they spread in such an insidious way, in little, non-flashy things that allows us to say that we live just as people did in the twentieth century.

Take cell phones, possibly the only thing that was – more or less.  People tended to go more for the video phone. – anticipated.  Just a little thing, right?  Now you can take a phone with you wherever you go.  Big whoop.  And inconvenient to boot.  I mean, your boss can find you everywhere.

Only go read any of the mid twentieth century mysteries and you’ll understand how much our life has changed in the what – fifteen? – years since cell phones have been pocket-sized, affordable and reach everywhere in the nation.  Most of those mysteries would never work now.  Girl alone and car breaks down?  No problem.  Dial triple A.  Stumbled on a body?  Don’t spend hours walking around in circles looking for someone to report it to and make yourself the primary suspect.  Get that cell phone out of your pocket, you ninny and call the police already.

Other things make that last scenario of finding a body then spending hours walking or driving, looking for the law, even more unlikely.  What are you doing in an unknown area without a GPS?  Okay, so maybe you’re a hiker, but even most hiking trails are on GPS these days.

Then add in the internet.

When we first moved to the Denver area, when we took the kids to Denver for a weekend, we had a routine which we had used whenever we went to a new city.  First, get a map.  Then go to the phone book and look up stuff you want to do.  Museums.  Amusement parks.  Restaurants.  Map out the route.  Then you can go.  And of course you might get there and find the place is closed or that something that was called La Haute Cuisine is ironically named.

This got a little better by the end of the nineties for restaurants and most of the museums there were places you could call on your cell phone that would give you reviews right there by phone, and often directions too.

But even to people like us who always buy older technology (cheaper) it is much easier now.  While we use an el-cheapo cell phone that is so not smart it probably never passed elementary school, we always take at least one computer (or at least the tablet) on vacation.  And before we go I google those days in that place, to see if there are any festivals, museum free days or other special events we don’t want to miss.  I also do broad searches for the sort of place we like – like Greek diners.  Usually we have stuff mapped out before we leave the house, but if things fall through, we have a laptop to look up more, and a GPS to take us there.

Simple stuff?  Oh, sure.  But it also means when a genuine emergency happens, like when Robert was having an asymptomatic ear infection that went explosively symptomatic while we were in Denver, we wouldn’t have to drive around in circles and call the very few people we then knew trying to find an emergicare to take him to while he was in pain.  (Of course, now we know Denver as well as our neighborhood, but imagine any strange town.)

But again, the “convenience” of this dwarves the other changes the internet has brought about.

Guys, I spent two years not sending anything out because what I wrote was novels, they were too expensive to mail and I simply didn’t have the money.  To an extent, this influenced my decision to learn to write short stories, which are not natural to me, because I could that way maximize my investment in postage by maybe getting a story in front of someone who would read it.

Forget Indie exists for a while – hard to, right, and yet it’s newer than tomorrow – if I were now where I was twenty years ago, I could sent those novels electronic to at least three houses and most agents.  And given how fast I could write, I could keep sending them.

While on how fast I could/can write.  I don’t think any of you whippersnappers have any idea how isolated writers – and other odd people – were in the bad old days.  I do.  Being a writer was, by nature, an alienating thing.  People would be very puzzled by what you did.  The standard questions – still heard, no longer as resented – if you were a woman were always “do you write children’s books”?  And by that they meant picture books, or “Do you write romance?”  I wasn’t so lucky.  Nine times out of ten the first question of anyone so privileged as to have heard my accent was to go “What language do you write in?”

This might seem like I’m being picky and in a way I am, of course, but here’s the thing: it made you feel AWFULLY alone.  I remember how happy I was when I moved to Colorado and found out that there was a writers conference downtown and also the experience of attending that very first conference and being among other writers.  The first writers’ group I joined not only had people of different genres, but had fiction and non fiction writers thrown together, as if that were really helpful.  We, sf strangers, got weird comments on our stuff such as the immortal “Are you sure this is science fiction?  It’s not a thing like Star Trek.”

Just being able to get online and access friends, acquaintances and sometimes total strangers who also write, and ask how to do something, or how something works, or just being able to joke with friends.

Oh, it’s nothing, you’ll say, and besides it’s a distraction.  Sure.  Of course it is.  But I’ve always been the sort of person who has friends halfway across the world.  Being able to call them was something that happened once a month if that and cost a fortune.  Right now, my best writing buddies are halfway across the country or halfway across the world, and yet we can contact each other several times a day and if I write something I’m not sure of I can run it by them in seconds.  (Okay a little more for long stuff, since they have lives.)

I’ve also found that I can dispense with half of the “just in case” books.  You know the “just in cases” – a walking map of NYC; a guide to automobiles in the mid twentieth century; books on how to treat various odd ailments; books on the native plants and animals of various lands.  Half the books I picked up at library sales were “just in case I need to.”  Most never got used, of course.  Now?  Well, if I need it there’s a net for that.

And that’s just in writing, and I haven’t exhausted all improvements and everything that’s easier – I just want to move on to the rest of life.

Do you know how much I would have given, when I had small kids and couldn’t leave the house whenever I wanted to, to be able to get on the net and in seconds – not the half an hour or so it took to deal with catalogues and all – order stuff I needed which would be at my door in two days?  Yeah, I think I bought books from Amazon on the day it opened up for business, but I couldn’t order a mop, then, or bread, or…

Do you know how much I would have given when I was broke and depressed for the chance to read free books?  I did have them, sort of – the rejects in front of the local used bookstore – but they were mostly gothic romances or very, very odd college text books.
Just that takes the sting off what I found the worst of poverty.

And then there’s videos – which I grant you I get through Prime Amazon Membership, but even that it’s not very expensive when you consider.  I don’t watch TV very often and movies less than that, but if I want to they’re there.  What’s more, they’re there not in whatever is available in my area, but in whatever I WANT at that moment.  Do I want to watch a mystery?  There’s a mystery series.  Period drama? It’s there.  SF?  It’s there.  It’s like having a near infinite video library in your living room.  And if you are willing to pay, the library is very close to infinite.

These things seem small but they’re not – they’re creating a more connected, more informed and yes, more diverse world – diverse in the way that counts, where your news and entertainment aren’t being channeled through some gatekeeper’s preferences.

And we’re not using the half of it.  People who scream we need to move closer to our places of employment, or use trains to save gas are living in the early twentieth century.  First of all – please, read up – the new tech has revealed new deposits of obtainable oil, so that Colorado and Israel can rival Saudi Arabia as oil producers.  Second – why on Earth do most people have to go in to work, other than outmoded habit.  Most people in white collar jobs can easily work remote from home.  They can work from anywhere in the world.

No, of course this isn’t happening.  There is resistence to it, a suspicion that people won’t self-motivate or… something.  But then the same thing was true of ebooks for years, till the barrier broke.  By the time it broke, most people assumed it wouldn’t.  And if people were really serious about saving gas or cutting emissions or whatever that IS what they’d be pushing: telecommuting.  You known none of these politicians care about what they say they are trying to save, because if they did they would be cutting down on regulations against working from home and giving companies incentives to have a remote workforce.  Instead, they’re building trains and tightening regulations – which I grant you has better opportunity for graft.

In the same way as ebooks, I suspect when the barrier against working from home falls down it will move with catastrophic speed.  It will be a good thing and very fast.  The very fast will make life interesting.  No?  Well, where you live right now is predicated by where jobs are.  This in turn supports local infrastructure, house prices, etc.  Now imagine you can life in Podunk and work in NYC.  Think what that will do to house values, salaries, social life and the price of drapes.  Yeah – when that hits it will make what’s happening to publishing and will soon happen to education look like a storm in a teacup.

The future is now and, by and large, the future is better than the past.  But to take advantage of it we need to open our eyes and move past things like screaming about how we need more public transportation.  We need to stop applying old solutions to new problems.  In the seventies it seemed to me tons of people were nostalgic for the thirties.  The same people seem to still be nostalgic for the thirties, now with a tinge of the seventies.

But the way forward is forward, not towards some imagined misty-rosy past that never existed.

The future is now.  It’s time to grow up and enjoy it.

4 thoughts on “On Our Way To The Future

  1. I hadn’t really thought about how technology had changed the “right” answer to problems that have been hanging about for decades. The internet also gives a glimpse of a future where small companies are common, inexpensive to start up . . . and will probably cover areas we hadn’t dreamed of. Yeah books now, education tomorrow . . . what next?

    No one is ever unemployed, they’re just online hustling to find something other people will pay them for? Or pay to teach them? Or to design things for them?

      1. How true. My son the musician–who’s currently in Taiwan learning Mandarin–could easily find himself in that situation. Five part-time self-employed jobs. Most of them on the internet.

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