Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Welcome to the future

There's a t-shirt around that says something like, "I thought this was the future--where's my jetpack?" The future has turned out to be a bit of a dud. Certainly, for most of our lives, the year 2000 or 2001 sounded like it ought to be a very futuristic future--and here it is on the verge of 2007! They promised us telephones on which we would see the person we were talking to, and that's at least more or less possible, though just as we thought, it's not really desirable much of the time. And they promised us robots that would do all the housework. But unless you have a roomba, that's not happening, and probably never will. I mean, ok, in a sense, dishwashers (if you have one!) and washing machines, from the point of view of a woman in 1900, would be a form of robot. But if there's going to be a real robot, it will need to be able to tidy up the house, put away left-0vers, and make the bed. Nope, I don't see that in my lifetime, if ever.

And then there's the jetpack--instead we get traffic jams, 10 speed-bikes but no place safe to ride them, and a few oddballs with Segways. Segway is an answer to a question on one was asking. ("Gee, if only I could stand up and move forward, only a little faster than walking." How is this thousands of dollars better than a wheelchair or a scooter or a bicycle?)

But I guess what we never realized about the future is that the past always comes along for the ride. Houses, for example. We thought the future would have all future-houses. But the world is already rather well-supplied with houses, and they're mostly still here. I live in the sort of house that was being built back when I was dreaming about the future in 5th grade. Where did we think this little 1950s house would go? Except for the computer and the microwave, there's nothing really different about the house I live in now, because it actually is the very same house that people lived in 50 years ago. The same thing is true for cars. Oh, sure, we have airbags and power windows, but if my 5th grade self had seen a 2001 Toyota Sienna, she would not have found it very surprising for a car. And cars from the 70s and 80s still cruise the streets. Ford Thunderbirds look just like the original 50s models once again, thank goodness!

Apart from computers, the pace of change seems to have slowed. From December1903, when the Wright Brothers made their first puny little flight, to July 1969, when man walked on the moon (we think), was a little less than 63 years. From 1969 to 2006 is 37 years, and yet we're still flying in essentially the same airplanes as we had in 1969, and the average person is no closer to going into space than we were in 1969 or 1903 for that matter.

The other evening I was sitting in my chair with an electric lamp brightening the room, listening to the radio and knitting, and I thought to myself, It could be 1936 instead of 2006.

Except if it had been, I wouldn't be able to write about it here and have friends all over the country read it!

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