Burning Question: Which Technology Makes You Feel Like You’re Living In The Future?

Last week the Three Word Chant blog uncovered a Newsweek piece by Clifford Stoll written in 1995 on “Why the Internet Will Fail” that contains a long list of things people will never be able to do online that pretty well matches up with everything we are able to do today. Just 15 years ago the world we live in was seen as some impossible fantasy by at least one person.

It can be argued that Stoll was just a bad futurist, unable to fathom concepts that others could clearly envision. Science fiction has always offered much more radical takes on what the future will look like, and many of the ideas, concepts, and even the actual gadgets now exist. At least once a week some device or service makes me think “It’s so nice now that we live in the future.”

I wondered what tech other people used that made them feel this way, so naturally I turned to science fiction authors. I asked these seven writers which technology or software makes them feel like they are living in “The Future.”

Jeffrey A. Carver, author of Sunborn and Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries

My first thought was cellphone (Can you hear me now?), but on Star Trek they never had to ask that question. Still, my cellphone does flip open like a Classic Trek communicator. My second thought was eBook reader. I love reading on my Sony Reader and also on my Dell PDA, which I keep almost for the sole purpose of using as a book reader, especially for reading in the dark. And the new iPad looks about as much like the electronic reading slates on Next Generation as you can get. But you know, that’s all stuff I can have now. So it feels futuristic–but it’s in the here and now.

I think I have to go with my third thought, which is the flying car. I don’t have one yet. But soon… soon… They’re working on them, you know. There’s the Transition, from Terrafugia, a “roadable airplane” that has flown in flight tests. And then there’s the supercool-looking flying motorcycle, the Switchblade, from Samson Motor Works. Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. I don’t think it’s flown yet. But it will. It will. And then? Why, then we’ll really be in the future. And I’ll know I’m in the future when I’m able to afford to buy one!

John Scalzi, Hugo award-winning author of Zoe’s Tale and The God Engines

As much as it kills me to give Steve Jobs yet another reason to be a smug jerk, my iPod Touch really is a red-hot chunk of future living. As powerful as my laptop computer not all that many iterations ago, and doing everything it did, only smaller and prettier.

(Except multitasking. But never mind that now.)

What’s really annoying about it is how much better Apple does the future than its competitors. I own a Blackberry Storm, too, and every time I use a non-phone related function on it I end up wanting to yell at it for not being as fun/easy/intuitive as the equivalent app on the Touch. I’m pretty sure my Storm weeps silently to itself whenever I leave the room. I should really stop anthropomorphizing my tech.

Ironically, I don’t want an iPhone. Sorry, AT&T, but your network doesn’t exactly live in the future, now, does it?

Nisi Shawl, author of the Tiptree award-winning collection Filter House

When I first thought about this question, I figured I’d be writing about my phone, which is what I’m writing this on. I’ve only had my current phone, with its qwerty keyboard and Internet capabilities, for a week. But that was what everyone else was going to pick.

Maybe I could write about my bra? No doubt it’s a major miracle of applied materials science–but I know too little about my bra’s construction to discuss it meaningfully. My debit card? My checking account? I was without either of these modern conveniences for over a year. “Welcome to the Fifties,” Eileen Gunn said when I gushed about mailing in bill payments!

These days, the grocery store doesn’t even keep my check; the cashier runs it through her register and gives it back to me with an official-looking statement printed on it advising me that by signing the check I’ve authorized the store to make an electronic withdrawal from my account. Checks are debit cards.

As William Gibson said, “The future’s already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” There’s a lot more of it at the grocery store.

Away from the grocery store, the most futuriffic influence on my life is this web-based project management software called Basecamp. I so grok it.

When I use Basecamp, I’m working in a virtual space, a truly nonphysical locus. I sit at my desk at home in Seattle and draft press releases and proof ad designs on Basecamp. Then I take the train to a friend’s place in Portland where I login to Basecamp again, finalize the press releases, and send the approved ads to various publications. These documents exist on the website, not on my computer, so it doesn’t matter which machine I use to work on them. My coworkers also have access. They add documents, edit them, make jokes about my changes. We hold meetings on Basecamp.

I’ve just been asked to edit a book. The publisher mentioned royalties; I wasn’t interested in those. I made my availability contingent on whether she’d pay for a Basecamp account.

I’ve never felt this way about software before.

Click here to read more answers from authors Tobias Buckell, David Levine, Charles Stross & Eileen Gunn


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  1. Andrew Burt Says:

    Followup question for everyone reading… What do you want to see in the future? If you could wish for anything what would it be? World peace? Self-driving cars? Genetic remodeling?

  2. Branko Collin Says:

    I seem to remember a Star Trek Next Generation episode where the away team beamed down with a huge video camera. Excuse me? This is supposed to be the 24th century. We already had cameras on our communicators, er, phones since the start of the 20st.

    And the Enterprise’s crew carried around separate medical scanners too. As if my phone could not, in theory, dial 112 before my head even bounced off the curb.

    I like Nisi Shawl’s answer. Predicting a physical invention is one thing, imagining what its applications may be a whole nother. David Leving says about the iPhone that it has “a user interface straight out of Minority Report (2002),” but what is so special about that? Spielberg put then current ideas about CHI in his film, and Apple could introduce such an intuitive interface because people had been primed by films like Minority Report.

    Cat people though great inventors may be, I doubt the likes of Vannevar Bush and Alan Turing would have predicted a system whereby every citizen of earth could show funny photos of feline friends to an attentive global audience. They may have had more serious applications in mind that do not require nearly as much innovation, such as reading and studying. It is because we have technologies that not ten years ago defied the imagination that we live in the future today.

    (Today I blogged about a website that will not only let you put just about anything you own online in a shared catalogue, but that will then let others bid on it. A sort of mix between Librarything and eBay, squared. It would be interesting to see what happens if that ever gets popular.)

  3. Julie Andrews Says:

    Eileen Gunn’s answer is my favorite.

    As for what I want to see, I want my holodeck! Right now!!

  4. Randi Says:

    Julie, I’ll see your holodeck and ante up a Transporter. Seriously, forget flying. Forget travel delays. Forget checking (and losing) luggage. Just hop through a transporter. See you in Hong Kong in a few minutes!!

  5. Gregg Eshelman Says:

    One thing that makes me feel as if I’m living in the future is I still never ever get tired of saying and writing “21st century” or “last century”, though that was a decade (or nine years) ago.

    I suppose the novelty will wear off once almost everyone who was born last century is dead. Just a small handful of 19th century people left now.

    The dystopic future feeling comes from the intrusive uses of technology. Cameras everywhere. Tracking what people buy. In the UK they’re putting chips in garbage cans and dumpsters. Supposedly they’re not being used for anything… yet.

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