This will display my age, now 45, as I compare the world I live in now with the one I grew up with. I am inspired this week by a number of news stories that would have been shocking and impossible “science fiction” back in the 1970s, as well as the continuing realization that my daily experiences today are unlike those of any human even just a decade or two ago.
Before I provide my evidence, let me tell you a story about a conversation I had with a friend of mine back in the late 1990s. We were having dim sum at a Chinese restaurant in St. Louis one morning, and he remarked to me that daily life hadn’t really changed much in our lifetimes. Houses were the same, pretty much. Restaurants were the same, pretty much. Going to the bathroom was the same pretty much (although he had not heard of the three shells, I had to agree with him). Now, my friend is a Harvard graduate who had studied astronomy and who went on to practice patent law and sell stories to Analog. No slouch, and definitely one who thought about the future. I disagreed with him at the time, citing things like cell phones and the internet, but I don’t think anyone could really disagree today in 2013. (Although having said that, I’m sure someone will. That part of being human hasn’t changed.)
1. Smart phones. Really I have to start here, and I could end here. I carry around with me a device that lets me talk to any of billions of people in the world. I could do video chat with some fraction of them like I was Dick Tracy, even. But it’s not just a phone in my pocket — already a crazy concept for the 1970s when a walkie-talkie was high tech — it’s a camera. And a video camera. And a caclulator. And an encyclopedia. And a star chart for any day I want. And a book. And a TV. And a portable stereo. And a GPS unit. And a video game machine. And a shopping mall. And a tape recorder. And a flashlight. And an alarm clock. And the yellow pages. And a translator. And any of a hundred other things… I mean, really, a device like this is really ridiculous technology. Many of these devices/capabilities either didn’t exist when I was growing up, they weren’t portable, they cost a lot of money, or they were separate and awkward.
2. Lab-grown meat. This was one of the new stories that made me take notice. I remember reading about “Chicken Little” — lab-grown meat — in Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants back in the day. I didn’t realize we were this close to being able to do it. Apparently tastes “almost” like real meat.
3. 3D printers. Not so portable or so cheap to put them in the smart phone category, but close to nanoforges in Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman or the replicators of Star Trek. I mean, you can download a design and make a freaking gun in your own house.
4. 3D TV. This was always an easy way to demonstrate future tech in a science fiction story. Talk about the holovision, the “Three-Vee,” or similar. Well, you can go out and buy one and put it in your house now.
5. Individually fitted blue jeans. Now, blue jeans don’t show up in the future in science fiction too often (more than likely it’s stupid silver jumpsuits), but for a piece of clothing that’s been around for over a century, it should continue to be around a while. I liked in Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow the part where a character gets specially fitted jeans made specifically for him by an automated system. Well, that’s here now, too: 3D scans provide custom jeans. Cool.
6. Cloned pets. It’s funny how the cloning story of the 1970s Boys from Brazil was about cloning Hitler, and the reality is cloning Fluffy.
7. Jet pack school. Yeah, for real. I grew up reading Adam Strange comic books. His “power” was traveling to an alien planet where he had a jet pack and a ray gun. It looked easy, but the reality is a lot of training is required. Get started now and be ready when you invent the theta beam! Or maybe Dean Kamen should work on this next.
8. Electric cars. These don’t seem all that futuristic to me at this stage, but I can recall thinking they were the future when I was the kid. Seeing the quiet “car” they drove around in on the Logan’s Run tv show was the coolest thing ever.
9. Household robots like Roomba. Robots in general were super cool, too, and there were some high-tech robot toys in the 1980s that qualified as real robots. Futhermore, while we had robots appearing in factories, they were just toys or something exotic and remote compared to what people had as practical devices for the home. Now a machine can vaccuum your carpet while you do something more important…like work extra hours. Robots haven’t seemed to actually shorten the real work day and give us unlimited leisure time, unfortunately.
10. The Media Explosion. Back in my day, says the 45-year-old, we had 4 channels in color on the tv, and we liked them just fine! Want to see a movie? Go to a theater where something like Star Wars would play for over a year. Seriously. Remember ads in the paper saying things like “now in its 47th week!” A porn movie? Go to a theater. A book? Go to the library or a bookstore. Music? Go to a record store and take it home to play on your stero. Want to talk to your friends? An expensive call on the phone. Or you could, you know, write a letter. Now intstant downloads let you watch thousands of tv shows or movies (porn or not) whenever you want. Download a book instantly, too, and if you write one, upload it for sale yourself. Music, not much different than books now. Then there’s email, facebook, twitter, etc., that lead to instant scandals and protests, even revolutions in some countries. Or you can just gossip and look at pictures of cats.
The list goes on. I left off climate change and how winters today differ from when I was a kid, for instance, or the ubiquity of cameras that is starting to resemble 1984
What are your most noteworthy examples of living in a science fiction future?
Individually fitted jeans used to be available from Levi’s Original Spin and Land’s End. Both have stopped making them. Can anyone tell me where this is still done?
I feel exactly the same way until I go visit my parents or go shopping in a grocery store. Then suddenly I’m a time-traveler.