The future’s a thing of the past

AmazbuckThis is the future. And not just the dawn of the future, but the mid-morning. In fact it’s getting on for the early lunch time of the future.

For those of us who grew up in the late-20th century, the pop-culture milestones have all been reached and left behind like the floating corpse of an astronaut flushed into space by a silky voiced computer. Not that 2001 was much like Kubrick’s film, mind you. Yes, we spent a lot of time shrieking and throwing bones at each other, and Windows did its best to kill us off, but moon bases and Pan-Am stewardesses in Velcro shoes remained tantalisingly elusive.

Before we knew it a sequel, 2010, was rushing towards us. That film, subtitled The Year We Make Contact, was much more accurate than the first one. It predicted that we would meet alien life forms, and indeed we did: South Africa was visited by a vast parasitic hive-mind called Fifa, which told us that resistance was futile, helped itself to 30billion of our rands, and blasted off back into deep accounting space where no one can hear auditors scream.

And so here we are, facing the last of the great futures predicted in the 1980s, namely, the 2015 envisioned in Back to the Future II. It got some things right and others wrong, but the one thing nobody saw coming was that 2015 would be the year in which every single person with access to a keyboard would write an article about what Back to the Future II got right, so I’ll spare you the details. Besides, our present future is far more miraculous than anything imagined by Hollywood.

Short of yelling at the kids to get off your lawn, nothing makes you sound older than pointing out the miracles of modern technology. But dammit, someone’s got to do it. How are we not running screaming through the streets, holding up our cellphones like the magic wands they are? How is it even conceivable that your misspelled message, illustrated with a smiling poo emoji, can fly through the air and enter my phone?

Perhaps it all still feels so magical to me because I am a creature of the pre-digital age. I wrote school projects on a typewriter, and I still don’t believe you can consider yourself a real writer unless you’ve blobbed too much Tipp-Ex onto a word, not given it long enough to dry, and then pounded it into a sticky mess, hoping that quantity of print will make up for quality. For me the future was going to be like the past, just with sleeker lines and more buttons to push. Instead of trains, we would have monorails. Instead of zeppelins, we would have jet-packs. Our future was also a kind, progressive one, where robots didn’t come back to terminate young mothers but instead shuffled around going “Beedee beedee!” in a helpful sort of way.

And then, somewhere in the 1990s, we learned that the future wasn’t going to be beautifully mechanical but coldly, inscrutably digital. At first it was exciting. My family replaced the typewriter with a machine of almost unlimited power – a Pentium 386 with 40 megabytes of hard-drive space. At night we huddled around it, stroking the mouse with our Tipp-Ex-encrusted fingers, making fretful grunts and whoops. We dreamed that this new technology would take us with it into a future of unimaginable potential.

But instead of becoming more interesting, the machines just got more capacious. The horizon was widening exponentially, but it was still flat. This wasn’t the future that the World’s Fair promised us. We wanted teleportation! We wanted mind-melds! All we were getting was a future in which we would be able to store enough porn to keep us in a state of lacklustre arousal for decades until we died of a clotted priapism.

Perhaps this deep disappointment is why so many writers are giving us dystopian visions of the future these days. They wanted a world in which you could walk into your space-kitchen and tell your robo-butler to make you poached egg out of nothing but ectoplasm and solar wind. Instead they got internet hyperbole. (“This Man Used ‘Literally’ In A Sentence Correctly! What Happened Next Will Literally Blow Your Mind!”) Even the bad stuff has been a let-down. The great, glittering pessimists of science fiction predicted that we’d all have computer chips inserted in our heads. Instead we’ve just got potato chips inserted in our mouths.

Then again, perhaps the upsurge in gloomy predictions is because authors aren’t getting the advances they once did, and when you can’t afford that extension to your writing cabin in the Cotswolds, it really can seem as if the jackboot of evil is goose-stepping down your lane.

Not me. I think this future is astonishing, and … what?! YOU CAN PRINT IN 3D?! Seriously, people, are you not seeing any of this?


First published in The Times and TimesLive

Published by Tom Eaton

Tom Eaton is a columnist, satirist, screenwriter and sometime-novelist.

2 thoughts on “The future’s a thing of the past

  1. I’m probably about the same age as you, so i can remember traveling in foreign countries without a cellphone and occasionally faxing my parents to let them know which continent I was on and that I was still alive. Faxing was amazing.

    Since then, we’ve reacted to, and then quickly adapted to, two technology bursts – the internet and cellphones, followed by the internet in cellphones, which hasn’t really changed for a few years.

    But I’m getting really excited about the future again. Self-driving cars, apps that can do really useful things, fusion (which is still 20 years away, but hey, someday we’ll be right. One day, a visionary will be remembered as the person who first accurately predicted that fusion was just 20 years away. I’m hoping it’ll be me). Gen IV nuclear power plants, renewable energy that doesn’t completely destroy the environment, functioning public transport and redesigned cities, and kids in South Africa learning to read and write one day. I still love the Gautrain, even though it’s nothing magical and the money would probably have been better spent upgrading metrorail. It was a vanity project and it worked.


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