In the future, we’ll be stuck in traffic

While in San Francisco last week, I overheard a discussion in which Slashdot was mentioned as one of the first venues that successfully built a vivacious and robust online community. I thought I’d wander over and get a whiff of the local cyberlife and, after a good fifteen minutes of moderate scrutiny, I’m convinced that it’s true – the Slashdot community does look remarkably lively. I’m not sure that I regret not being part of it, though. I imagine I’d lose my shit a great deal.

For instance.

What should I find but this wee thread. “SF Author Robert J. Sawyer Looks at 2014”. Yes indeed, it’s a moist bout of technological pornography of the kind that gives SciFi (sic) enthusiasts a bad name. Seems as if Comrade Sawyer has been playing futurologist, casting his mind a whole ten years into the future to consider what our lives will be like in the glittering wonderworld that will be 2014. With the IT industry doing everything it can to ensure that the rule of Moore’s law – computing power, though more properly the number of transistors per integrated circuit, doubling every 18 months – remains unbroken, what on earth will the world be like with computers over 100 times as powerful as today? Our day begins…

Our mornings will still begin with waking up. But forget the old-fashioned alarm-clock buzzer. Tomorrow’s bedside clock will be a sophisticated brainwave monitor. It’ll keep track of your sleep cycle, gently bringing up the room lights at precisely the right time so that you’ll feel rested, not cardiac arrested, as you awake.

Sawyer then tells of robokitchens and self-driving cars and haddock-powered Frinkifiers.

Why am I glad that I’m on the outside of this rubbish? Because the folk at Slashdot lay into our lad on the grounds that he seems to think that Moore’s law about computing power is a license to posit similar advances in government regulation, robotics and income. Sure, that’s all true, but it woefully misses the point.

For most people, the kinds of technology that fascinates we geeks has made very little difference over the past few decades. I’m not talking here of the majority of the world that has yet to make a phone call. I’m talking about you and me. And for you and me, unless you’re maddeningly rich, things now are pretty much as they were a few years ago.

One of the finer illustrations of this was in a 1983 BBC pop-science programme – Q.E.D. – in which the splendid Professor Heinz Wolff traveled back in time to see how nearly forty years of technology had made a difference to the “Man on The Clapham Omnibus”. His conclusion is this: if you think that air travel, telecommunications, traffic, and a bevy of domestic consumer durables are the gifts of the modern age, well, we had those in 1948.

There’s a threshold argument with which Sawyer might respond – sure, 1994 looks pretty much like 2004, except for the internet. The internet changes everything. I’ve some sympathy for this, except that the internet is a footnote in everything else that he forecasts. The rest is just an orgy of unimaginative blah-tech. No siree. The only thing we know for sure is that, in the future, we’ll be stuck in traffic.

To be honest, the only SciFi futurologist who’s worth a damn is Arthur C. Clarke – the satellite, the virtually free international phone call and, please lord, one day the space elevator. These are fine bits of punditry.

But futurology has its limits, and it’s important to remember that the people who won’t get to ride the space elevator are likely to be just as large a percentage of the population as the people who don’t get to make the cheap international phone call today. And I think we can leave the pasty denizens of Silicon Valley to enjoy their REM-synched alarm clocks without too much envy.