Tuesday, August 14, 2007

What happened to the future from the past?

Every time I read an article about a futuristic development of some kind (flying cars, mapping the entire surface of the moon, bionic hands, batteries made of paper), I find myself asking some variation on this question:

When is the future going to get here?

I'm sure a lot of the science fiction I've immersed myself in has influenced my expectations, I have a pronounced taste for near and intermediate future visions, where things happen in the 21st century. Consequently, my expectations of the 21st century are intense. We should have Earth orbit colonies. We should have solar sails. We should have self-cleaning clothing, medical nanobots, Methusaleh lifespans, teleportation, android servants, an end to poverty, war, hunger, and weather control. There's more; I can go on like this pretty much all day. The point is... where is that stuff? We don't even have a space elevator. Hell, we don't even have a high-functioning space program. This strikes me as pretty inexcusable.

Don't people know this is the future already? Don't people know, that we could have had all these things, if only we were even working on it? Even the major drivers of innovation (the sex-for-money industries, grinding poverty, and arms races) aren't really getting us there. The reluctant conclusion I have come to is that things aren't bad enough yet.

Human beings love and hate change, all at once. We'll embrace the things that aren't too threatening (cell phones, lightweight waterproof fabrics, vision corrective laser surgery) but there is apparently no reason to chase the big game. Who needs a space elevator? Who needs a moon base?

In fact, who needs the future? People seem to fantasize constantly about returning to... nature? the past? a simpler time? What do those people want? outdoor plumbing? Cholera? Typhoid? Polio? The freedom to enjoy the butter you make yourself, because the things you have to do to make your own butter are sufficient to keep that heart attack at bay? I take this pining for the imaginarily romantic past as a sign of either a fear for, or at least a tacit acknowledgment of, the future. It means that things ARE changing. If things weren't changing, no one would need to retreat.

I suspect my real complaint is that, unlike the past, the future comes incrementally. It isn't delivered wholesale to my doorstep. I won't wake up in The World of Tomorrow. And, I probably won't live to see anything on my list happen. Believe me, I keep track, I know which of those things are under development right now, and I just don't see most of them happening in a timely fashion.

Well, self-cleaning clothing, maybe.

10 comments:

Rufus said...

It's funny- reading history all day, I'm constantly amazed when I leave the library. "Portable telephones?! Computer navigated cars?! Holy Moses!"

Holly said...

Ok, but... we still have cancer. And B.O. And paper. And landfills. And pollution. And religion.

Rufus said...

Of course I'd like to see cancer and pollution gone. To be honest, I think I'd be more scared to live in the sort of society that could effectively eliminate religion than I'd even be to live in a theocracy. As for paper, there are plenty of reasons to keep it around. Since I'd have no reason to travel to Paris and do research there were the national archives all digitized, I'm a big supporter of paper.

Brian Dunbar said...

We don't even have a space elevator.

We're dancing as fast as we can, honest.

I do sympathize. For all that 2007 is a good place to live - the internet, GPS - we should be watching 'Big Brother - Luna City' (Live from the Luna City Hilton) and worrying about how the dust storm is going to affect the teams exploring Mars.

We've got a clunky space station run by the government. Three Shuttles.

This isn't the way it was supposed to be.

Holly said...

Rufus - Parisians still live in Paris, and they can cook. And that's where they keep all their important buildings, which cannot effectively be digitally replaced.

The reason I mention disappearance of religion is that it's more or less the logical consequence of the triumph of rational thought--not as the victim of a successful childhood immunization program. Of course, there are arguments that skepticism and science are, in fact, The New Religion, but I'm not sure how much I buy that idea. And, I'm not at all certain that religious behavior could be eradicated, it kind of seems like our brains might be hard wired for it, in the same way they're wired for emotion, or language, or a love of shiny things. Is the future not a package deal, where you get the "good" with the "bad" of solutions? Maybe we cure the 100 most common diseases and figure out how to feed and house 12 billion people... but in the process sacrifice all the reptiles, most of the sea life, and lose the transparency of the atmosphere entirely? But jeeeesus on a stick, we still BURN THINGS FOR POWER, this is really insane.

Brian - I know, the space elevator work is actually happening, that's amazing news. I take it you work on that? I've always wondered something about that, maybe you can tell me... Isn't the part about anchoring it really tricky? I assume the whole thing would have to go into space, or just be built there, and then lowered to the surface to be anchored? Because the power necessary to drag it up would be crazy. Or is a space elevator just not as big as I'm imagining? Erm.... any chance you could point me to somewhere online I can read reliable info about this? Because I've got all kinds of questions and stupid ideas.

I read a story once where a metallic asteroid was towed close to earth and then nano-assemblers spooled out the cable from there down to the planet. I always thought that was a great way to do it, but of course no one is actually working on that.

The fact that a space port opened in New Mexico when I was living there was enormously encouraging! Even if it's years before they do anything that warrants BOTH words in the name...

Rufus said...

The reason that I mentioned Paris is that there's a big push to digitize the National Library. What this would mean is that a scholar anywhere could read the archives without leaving home. For some reason, they say that like it's a good thing. I'm pretty opposed to it because I like having an excuse to go to Paris every year. I don't know if I could talk anyone into paying for me to go look at buildings and monuments.

The other thing with paper is that I suspect that there are manifold reasons that we use paper, some of which are irrational, some of which are emotional, and others that cannot even be verbally expressed. That's sort of the Hayek argument, but I think there's something to it. Since it's increasingly a matter of choice, I suspect that we might have already made the choice to keep paper, although there are a lot of things, like magazines and junk mail, that I'd much rather get rid of.

I'm not at all afraid of a religion of science. I was talking about what you're talking about. There's good reason to believe that religion is hard wired and serves some sort of purpose in human societies. In most efforts to get rid of it, the cure has been worse than the disease. Besides, I want to always leave open the possibility that some day, maybe after drinking ayahuasca-based tea, I'll discover that my atheism was completely wrong.

Incidentally, Canada is talking about getting rid of coal-fired power plants entirely and replacing them with nuclear power. There have been the predictable outcries, but I'm increasingly convinced that it's a good idea. Of course, we live near Niagara Falls, so I assume most of our power comes from the hydro plant.

Space elevators? Like Willy Wonka's? That's pretty fascinating. Is anyone working on teleporters? Aside from Jeff Goldblum.

Robert said...

There is a new comic book series called "Doktor Sleepless" that ddresses soem of these concerns. Even though it is set IN THE FUTURE, there are still no flying cars or flash bang icons of what we always thought the future would hold for us.

Worth a google, or a trip to your local comix store!

Brian Dunbar said...

. I take it you work on that?

In a very minor way - I'm a system administrator on the project. I think of it as a way of getting a stake in - if LiftPort works out I've helped create a very interesting job for myself. Just think of the server farms we'll require.

Isn't the part about anchoring it really tricky?

The whole thing is tricky - if by tricky you mean requiring extreme attention to detail and difficult to pull off.

The Plan is to launch a seed ribbon to LEO, mate the components in orbit. We need 6-7 Shuttle flights (or their equal for whatever unmanned carrier exists at that time). Think of these as reels of ribbon, connected together for continuous deployment.

Once mated together the near end unreels and de-orbits - in and down. The carrier with the bitter end goes up and out - eventually reaching 100,000 kilometers in altitude. The carrier becomes the initial bitter-end counterweight.

We've not got a ribbon deployed that is just strong enough for it's own weight, plus a safety factor, plus deployment lifters.

At the near end we've attached it to a platform at sea, on the equator. Attach deployment lifters that ascend and 'weld' more lengths of CNT to the ribbon. Each deployment lifter is parked at the bitter end. We eventually have 250 of these parked nose-tail up there and a ribbon that will have a 'lift' of 7 20-ton lifters at a time. Each 20-ton lifter will have a cargo capacity of 14 tons.

Or so is the hope at this time. All of this is subject to change as we plow ahead. And yes, this is a very ambitious undertaking.

any chance you could point me to somewhere online I can read reliable info about this?

LiftPort has written a book - or rather we edited it and compiled SciFi shorts and fact articles. See our store at Liftport.com

Warning - it's a first edition, and a first effort. There are issues with the formatting of the book and (blush) spelling errors in the text.

There is also Dr. Edwards NIAC study in PDF format - http://www.liftport.com/files/521Edwards.pdf It does make some leaps in assumption and is happily optimistic concerning costs and dates but it's a great resource.

And WIKI! - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator

Because I've got all kinds of questions and stupid ideas.

We also have a Forum and .. hey there are no such things as stupid ideas.

http://www.liftport.com/forums/

I read a story once where a metallic asteroid was towed close to earth and then nano-assemblers spooled out the cable from there down to the planet. I always thought that was a great way to do it, but of course no one is actually working on that.

One problem with the asteroid deal is that if you can afford to mount an expedition to go get an asteroid then you've .. somehow .. already solved the problem that we need a space elevator for - namely it's too damned expensive to get to orbit.

Now .. if we do manage to solve the CATS problem without a space elevator (and it could happen) this would not be true and a space elevator would be all kinds of useful as an adjunct to a robust launch industry.


Rufus
The reason that I mentioned Paris is that there's a big push to digitize the National Library. What this would mean is that a scholar anywhere could read the archives without leaving home. For some reason, they say that like it's a good thing. I'm pretty opposed to it because I like having an excuse to go to Paris every year.

That's great if you can get someone to pay. Now - I have no urge to read anything in the National Library but if I did I could not get someone to pay my way - it would be a curiosity only deal. For those of us way way out in the sticks (I live in a drive past town in a fly over state) it's expensive in terms of cost and travel time just to get to a major research library - U of Chicago is a three hour drive for me, UW Madison 90 minutes - we're talking an entire day just to read a paper!

I don't want to get rid of paper - for one thing paper is tough and resists damage far better than bits can. But having material in a format than I can read over the internet is a god-send.

Rufus said...

Okay, well my love of paper isn't entirely motivated by self-interest. I'm also concerned about the things that are lost when technologies change. Supposedly there are a few tapes from the Nixon White House that can't be listened to because they were recorded in obsolete formats and there aren't any machines left to play them. And most of the emails from the Bush Sr. White House are similarly gone forever because their technology is obsolete. I'd be concerned that the technology will change to the point that our digital archives become obsolete as well.

Holly said...

Brian - Thanks for the explanation and pointers, most helpful! I think in the story I read, the asteroid thing was actually building an elevator down to a recently terraformed Mars or some such. If you ever want someone to proof stuff for you, I'm happy to volunteer time. I love reading stuff like that, and my woman's intuition is devoted almost entirely to grammar and spelling.

Rufus - I'm always suspicious when I hear there's a recording that "can't be played"... given how much technology has improved since, oh, last week, there is no reason at all that someone who wants to hear those recordings can't find someone to build the thing that plays them. But, yes, digital formats are precarious. Charles Stross wrote an interesting article for (I think?) the BBC about how we're clearly on the road to intermolecular storage, and that we could basically record everything we have on something the size of pencil eraser. In a semi-related realm, I read an article today that says philosophers at some university rate it a 20% chance that we are, you and I, not actual people, but vectors in an ancestor simulation run by future descendants of the current technological path.