The Future Is So Yesterday

Posted on Wednesday, July 23rd, 02008 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Futures   chat 0 Comments


Danny Hillis had a great take on modern futurism in a recent piece in the Washington Post about Disney’s new Tomorrowland.

“Americans feel very little connection to the future anymore,” says Danny Hillis.

Hillis is in a singular position to make this statement. He has long been a deity of the computer age, having pioneered massively parallel processing — now the basis for most advanced computers. Then he was a Disney Fellow, and vice president for research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering. He is now co-chairman of the Long Now Foundation, which fosters long-term thinking and responsibility for the next 10,000 years.

“Basically there was a time in the 1950s and ’60s that were very future-oriented. Everybody wanted to be an astronaut. ‘The Jetsons,’ ‘Star Trek,’ stuff like that. Everybody was imagining that future we were all going to live in. That’s how I grew up as a kid.

“It was very surprising to me, getting to the future, that nobody was all that interested. Things just started to happen so fast, we were overwhelmed. With the microchip, we stopped being able to imagine the future — we had so much trouble handling what was being brought out in the present.

“The second thing, everyone was imagining the future was about universal prosperity — kids being much better off materially than they were. To see that attitude today, you have to go to China and India. They are very future-oriented. The Chinese are sort of the way we were in the ’60s. Everything’s going to get better. There will be glitches, but we’ll overcome them by progress and effort.

“We are future overwhelmed. I don’t think people try to imagine the year 2050 the way we imagined 2001 in 1960. Because they can’t imagine it. Because technology is happening so fast, we can’t extrapolate. And if they do, it’s not a very positive thing to imagine. It’s about a lot of the unwanted side effects catching up to us — like global ecological disaster. The future views are kind of negative. The most positive future-oriented stuff in the United States is around global ecology and sustainable living and that sort of stuff. It’s a counterpoint to that ecological disaster future.

“We have made incredible progress. The world is way better off than it was in the ’60s. But we’ve had enough of the future to realize that it’s complicated. If you look at ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ everything seemed quite plausible at the time — especially the international cooperation aspect of it.

“What I think it says is that we are nostalgic for a time when we believed in the future. People miss the future. There’s a yearning for it. Disney does know what people want. People want to feel some connectedness to the future. The way Disney delivers that is to reach back in time a little bit to the past when they did feel connected.

“It’s a bit of a cop-out. There was a time when the future was streamlined jet cars. Rather than create a new sense of the future, they say, ‘Ah, remember when we believed that the future was streamlined jet cars?’ It’s a feeling of connection to the future, rather than connection to the future.
“It’s a core ache. Something is missing that we’re searching for.”

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  • Someone once told me that Confucius wrote that the inferior man knows what he knows; the superior man knows what he does not know. I don’t know if it’s a genuine quote, but the wisdom of it stuck with me.

    A sense of wonder requires a level of accessibility. Once a thing becomes too complicated, you can be impressed with the functionality, the “gee wiz” aspect, but it’s tremendously difficult to comprehend it enough to have that sense of wonder. Flying cars are similar enough to the cars we drive today that we have some understanding of what it is we don’t understand, but far fewer people have that same degree of comprehension of the microwave-frequency design engineering that goes into a gigahertz-range microprocessor. We know what we know about it–gee wiz, it sure makes that game run fast–but we don’t know what we don’t know about it.

    Why is the 10,000 year clock a mechanical clock? It’s hard to believe it’s for repairability. After all, you’re planning to build it out of super-hard jade and advanced metal alloys–anyone wanting to replace those components will have to have a fair bit of technology to back them up. Perhaps, instead, it’s to engender a sense of wonder in the observer. Gears are complex, it’s true, but they’re also simple enough that we realize that we could understand them, given enough time to trace the linkages. They give us a sense of what it is we don’t know, a cognitive sense of scale.

    An interesting question to me is how can someone recapture that sense of wonder with the tremendously complex systems we’re seeing in high tech, biotech, and eventually nanotech. It can be done. For instance, one doesn’t have to be a molecular biologist to look at a fern and be struck with wonder by the fact that it’s a fractal, right down to ridges on the leaves, yet a fern is far more complex than anything we’ll be building any time soon. If we could recapture that sense of wonder, perhaps people will once again become future oriented.

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