Fifty years ago there were a mere three television channels in black and white, crackling through on a visibly curved little screen looking like a bulging glass porthole on an ultra deep diving submarine. If you wanted music, you scanned through the scratch of the radio dial, or bought some of these giant black discs that encoded music in physical grooves that you could just about see if you squinted hard enough. Movies played for a year before disappearing forever, lest you catch them a few years later on a holiday special of some sort. And if you missed an episode of a television show, that was just tough. Time shifting was just what sci-fi heroes did to go kill Hitler as a baby. It’s no wonder truly serial television didn’t explode until after VCRs became almost universal. Can you imagine missing two episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” in the final season while working unexpectedly late, if you didn’t have a DVR or VCR? I don’t know if you’d kill your boss, yourself, or both.
Today? I won’t bore you with that paragraph, since presumably you are aware of certain advances over the descriptions above. If not, don’t go outside or our flying cars might send you into a culture shock seizure.
If today’s media has changed so much since 1960, can you imagine what it will be like in another fifty years? It’s always a mistake to simply extrapolate past trends into a projection for the future, since exponential change is always followed by a long plateau, but the fun is in guessing just how much longer the change can keep churning before it hits the brick wall. The other challenge in prognostication though is that even though we might think the future will be different, we don’t necessarily have any idea along what dimension that change will occur.
I remember an old story Isaac Asimov used to tell, about his early days writing short science fiction for John Campbell. The story had included a computer small enough to fit on a desk. Such a jump was absurd, computers filled entire rooms, and so the story was rejected in favor of all manner of futuristic stories about our faster than light travel, moon bases, and telepathy that would all surely be commonplace within the next fifty years. Instead one might argue that just about every revolutionary change in technology over the last few decades can be traced back to those infernally shrinking microchips. So the catch, is what do we think that we know we can do, and what does that change about our world?
We’ll all have surgically implanted contact lenses that are connected wirelessly to a dust speck of a computer underneath your cheekbone that’s powered by sunlight and has a thousand times the processing power of this laptop I’m pounding away at. Those lens are the equivalent of a couple big screen televisions, and of course they’re in 3D because they’re displaying something slightly different to each of your eyes. Television screens and monitors? Obsolete. Gone. The great American temple is thrown into disarray, with the living rooms and bedrooms no longer planned around the ancient television altar. Laying on the beach, walking down the street, bored in a waiting room, every stranger around you is gazing vacantly into space, watching some hidden private entertainment that insulates them from reality. Sound like dystopia to you? You can judge it unholy only if you can honestly tell us about the engaging personal contact you cherish at the DMV.
All the personal gadgets are unified one by one: the mp3 players, the laptops, the cell phones, the PDAs, the tablets, televisions, DVRs, stereos, eReaders. They’re all just different vectors for slightly different combinations of video, audio, text, and the pressing of buttons. If you always have monitors in your eyes, and speakers in your inner ear, what need do you have for a particular chunk of plastic that does one of those things. The dedicated shrines to these activities dissipate: the movie theaters, the bookstores, the music stores, the various sundry electronics boutiques.
Everything is on demand, permanently. Every book, every movie, every song, every video game. Every work of the human mind is a download away, while you’re floating in that world embedded on the slivers of plastic in your eyes. There’s no need for a DVR anymore than there’s a need for a piece of hardware to print out your emails as they come in today. As episodes of a television series are made available, they’re there for the watching. No time slots, no juggling of the schedules of different networks.
Reality itself becomes a canvas on which we draw. Maps and directions are overlaid directly onto your view of the world. An appropriate squint at a building and every detail of its construction and history is yours. If you can see it, it is a hyperlink.
The technology is almost there, it’s being gradually assembled by the dreamers in tech labs around the world. The social concerns are extraordinary, the changes wrought on our society immense. But it’s not those concerns that are the stopping point, nor even the engineering hurdles. Instead it’s the economics. This coming world with any extrapolation of our current notions of copyright and privacy is a hell waiting to happen. It’s every nightmare dystopian future cobbled into one. Every step watched, every blink metered, with throbbing titans sucking every drop they can out of a state so totalitarian that “police” state can’t begin to do it justice. But the tech is coming. It cannot be legislated away. And even if it is temporarily, it will be back because people want their baubles on demand and the hell with the consequences.
The future is in the hands of the social thinkers now. They must figure out an economic system that works for this, figure out a way that the beast slouching down the road towards us can be harnessed before it tramples us.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.