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Where is the Future?

Wondering what happened to the future, as it seems to have disappeared.

Back in the late 1990s, the internet was the future. Middle-class households were starting to get computers, get online, the dot-coms were booming, and the future was a bright light we were following.

Then came the bust, Web 2.0, the rise of smartphones and an upheaval in journalism, the rise of Facebook, and all that. We got a bit turned around, and surrounded by blinking lights, we cannot tell which way to the future. We do not have the old, strong voices of media to help guide us. They are as confused as we. The juggernauts of the new technology like Google stopped pointing a way forward, became too focused on their own limited vision for their own business. The old guard of IBM and AT&T and the like? Bah, they can barely chart their own future. The old AT&T commercial’s refrain that “You will…” is long gone. Microsoft no longer asks “Where do you want to go today?” Apple Computer just wants to sell you the next slightly-updated iPhone, or maybe a wristwatch.

Sure, maybe autocars will come down the turnpike at some point, but by that point will we even care? Is the future anywhere anymore?

Part of the reason that Elon Musk and Bitcoin get attention (besides money) is their ability to sell a future. Once upon a time, an unknown “It” was touted by advertising from Amazon-dot-com, and it turned out to be a self-balancing two-wheel scooter that didn’t revolutionize anything. But hyperloops, Martian fever-dreams, telescope-blinding satellite constellations, and anonymous climate-destroying cryptocurrency? Sounds future!

There’s still a strong expectation that there will be a future, and we want to know about it. But lately the strong visions of future have evaporated along with the reservoirs out west. We can’t find it! It was here somewhere! Who had it last?!

It’s been awhile since I heard any buzz about Graphene, for example. What the heck, Graphene! You were supposed to make everything…more… grapheney?

And before you say it, pandemics don’t count, and neither do supervillain-rich folks skimming the edge of space! Sure, they were both predicted to be part of the future, but that was supposed to be along with the good things, too. We were supposed to have candybars that gave us an hour of superpowers or dogs that could beat us at chess, weren’t we?! Reanimated dinosaurs that breach containment? Aliens, laser guns, meals in pill form? Something? It was all so hazy back before it arrived—the future—and now that it’s here, I think it’s broken.

Some ideas to reconstitute the future include greater investment in basic research, even more blinking lights, and reducing carbon pollution so that the future can exist.

Others include:

New physical non-volatile media formats

We should have some kind of weirdly-shaped storage. Make it 3D, like marbles or little Rubik’s cubes. It should be rewritable and high-density.

Committee for Development of Youth Slang

Let’s face it, kids of today aren’t coming up with cool new words enough. Cheugy is itself cheugy AF. Come on, kids, you’re not even trying! All cool futures have lots of weird words, like in A Clockwork Orange or 1984. It’s the duty of youth to make them up.

Non-fashion clothing improvements

Fashion constantly invents new looks that never last. Instead, the average person’s wardrobe needs some updates. Better hats, pants that fit, new fabrics, something.

Music that I Hate

The music of today doesn’t make me want to scream. I don’t listen to much of it, but it’s mostly okay. That’s a big red flag. Adults are supposed to inherently grate at modern music. Not future enough!

What is 2015?

Displays 2015 written in binary (11111011111).

We know what 2014 was: many things. In the news we had plague, war, elections (a mix of plague and war, it sometimes seems), advancement in science. In our individual lives we had our own events, of course. But at this early date, what is 2015?

Undoubtedly more of the same. But how to look at it from a broader perspective?

We could say that the 2016 presidential election will begin to heat up in the late fall. We could talk about the media events to come (sports championships, artistic awards, etc.).

This might be the year you win the lottery (or lose the lottery, if you’re a statistical improbability). It might be the year you finally break down and buy a new something-or-other that you’ve had for years and grown sentimental about despite it being a commodity. Exciting to think about, isn’t it?

But for humanity at-large, not just Americans or people with antique spatulas, what is 2015?

What can we expect from a year? We’ve had years that marked major changes before. And then lots of little, incremental years between. We’ve also had years with false-starts in the way of social movements that didn’t quite make it to the top of the hill.

Is 2015 even real? It’s real in the sense that it denotes a real (enough) span of human time, but false in the sense that it’s an arbitrary length. “What is next Wednesday?” might be as useful of a question. But we still look at years with more significance than a Wednesday.

We look at time as cyclical. Last week sucked, but this one might be good. It’s a new week, like a new spatula. Gone, we hope, are the bad things of the old spatula, like the time we dropped the pancake on the floor. And it’s shiny, too. Has that new-spatula smell to it.

We plan for years. Intel plans to release another CPU. Ford another car. At the US State Department they’re working on this or that. But we don’t plan as a nation. There is no 2015: the year America ends poverty plan. We think that will take some time, and many of us believe it won’t ever happen (thanks, Jesus (Mt. 26:11, “The poor you will always have with you […]”)).

And we don’t do it as a planet, either. Can we, as a planet, go a whole year without someone re-watching Frozen (first-time views are okay, as are re-watches with a first-time viewer present, provided they do want to watch it again (no kidnapping/bribing/tricking your neighbor just so you can see it again))? Not this year. [Just for the records, I’ve not seen the film.]

But 2015 could have been the year we did something as a global community. And we don’t have that sort of thing set up. That’s not a thing, as the kids say. As far as I know we’ve never all done something consciously as a planet.

Now we all do some things every one of us. We all breathe, for example. But we don’t do it as part of a global movement. Maybe in 2015 we will. That would be something.

A Day in 2020

What will the world look like in the year 2020? Will we have flying car? Rolling planes? Swimming buses?

What will the world look like in the year 2020? Will we have flying car? Rolling planes? Swimming buses?

Are we optimistic or pessimistic? Realistic?

Let’s go back to 2005. The dark ages, before the iPhone and iPad and Android. Before GNOME 3. Gmail was a year old. Facebook still largely unknown (they dropped ‘the’ from their domain, and opened to high school students that year). Myspace was kicking it old school. Not a peep from Twitter yet. Bing not found. Sun Microsystems still existed. The cloud was only starting to gather.

Now today. With Android riding large, Google still strong, Microsoft still Microsoft, Apple still Apple (but with the iPhone and iPad now), what’s changed? Facebook is seen already to be weakening. The question on the whiskeyed lips of the investment community this New Years is whether they were lucky or smart. Will they survive? The same goes for just about everyone but Google at this point.

Microsoft is in a slow, long decline. Will they recover, reinvent? Become another IBM (still there, still strong, but not flashy, not consumer-oriented)? Will everyone be using Windows Phones in 2020? Will we still call them phones, smartphones?

Apple has maybe-maybe-not lost its mojo in the form of one Jobs-comma-Steve. What new market will they invent next? Will they replace the diamonds on the fingers with smart rings?

Google has thus-far shown a propensity for prediction. They’ve understood the mobile market and gotten Android out there in a way that Apple never would or could. They’ve blundered on social networks, but mainly because of the fickleness of that audience; if they were smart they would back a federated alternative, which preserves their fundamental business model, yet they’ve shown their hubris and tried to foist Google Plus upon the world.

Facebook, for its part, is still a strong platform. But they have yet to show anything to prevent them from becoming another Myspace. Going public doesn’t prevent that, but it may be enough to postpone it.

Twitter just keeps on going, but with no apparent direction. Will they become another Yahoo!? A strong company, but with no deep current, they are relegated to float atop the tides of change, with not even their leadership knowing where they will go next.

Now 2020. You wake up to birdsong, greeted by a friendly botservant to fix you breakfast. It has a death star, or a small letter G or lowercase f, or a tilted symbol looking a lot like a Nordic flag, or a purple Y!, shining on its forehead and breast. It has a spiral of crayon running up its ankle to its knee, your daughter is going to be an artist, it will tell you later that night when you get around to washing it off.

Now 2020. You wake up to an annoying electronic beep, greeted by a plastic block with blinkenlights saying you have 15 new mails, five missed calls/voice messages. You walk down the stairs (your daughter’s crayon art spirals the handrail this time) to make breakfast. You drop your phone into a cradle, and it reads out your mail while your coffee percolates.

Now 2020. Now 2020…

I don’t know. The fact is that the future is a complex equation. Market forces, human ignorance and biases, politicians that won’t serve the people. Lawyers. Managers and niche markets. Lofty ambitions, fortunes to be made.

It seems likely that we will not have botservants. It seems likely that phones will have become pure mobile devices, meant to be used not merely as glorified mobile phones, but as computing devices in their own right.

Will television become Internet vision? Likely. Will you read eBooks? Likely.

The pace of progress is being slowed, but there will come a time that it bursts through like water overpowering a dam. That may not be by 2020. But there is too much data, too much computing power, for it to be held forever.