Future Tense: Letting Go of Yesterday's Tomorrows


Editor's Note: We're very pleased to welcome David Gerrold , an acclaimed and prolific science fiction writer, to Maximum PC as a regular columnist. David, best known for his numerous contributions to Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, will share his thoughts on topics including the influence of science fiction on technology, the develop of tech trends, and notable technologists.

I try not to tell people I write science fiction. Too often, that turns into a conversation I don’t want to have: “Dude, it’s already ten past 2000. Where’s my flying car? Where’s my jetpack? Where’s my Lunar colony?”

This is "The Y2K Meme," the idea that the future was supposed to start in the year 2000 and we forgot to build it. And of course, because science fiction writers (allegedly) predicted all these glorious futures, it’s our responsibility to explain why it didn’t happen.

This meme began at least a century ago. The father of modern science fiction, Hugo Gernsback , made specific predictions about the future, everything from motorized roller skates to night baseball. Within a short time, many science fiction writers were functioning as futurists, telling tales of fabulous technologies to come.

Hugo Gernsback, the "Father of Science Fiction"

Heinlein wrote about cell phones and waldos, dilating doors and roads that roll, even atomic powered rockets traveling to the moon and Mars. Asimov told us about wall-sized 3D televisions and robots. Arthur C. Clarke predicted communication satellites and space stations. And my personal favorite, Murray Leinster wrote about a worldwide computer network used for shopping, entertainment, and education. Many of these technologies were pegged to specific dates in the forseeable future, so by the mid-fifties, it was generally accepted that the year 2000 would be a brave new world.

What we really missed is that the future creeps up on us one day at a time, like raising the temperature of the water one degree at a time so the lobster won’t notice. (I think the lobster notices, I really do, but that’s a different conversation.)

But it’s now obvious that the future stands firmly rooted in the past that produced it. Instead of the future we predicted, we got the future we built. And the future we built is a lot more functional than the one we dreamt.

Doors open for us automatically. Cars map the route to our destination and tell us how long it will take to get there. We watch movies on wall-sized screens with multi-channel sound. We talk to people all over the world on phones that fit in our pockets. Our three-pound computers have more processing power than all the computers that existed in the year 1970 combined. Our notebooks give us video chats and our cameras take movies and stills with resolution equal to or better than film. We have global access to an unlimited library of entertainment, movies, music, books, and educational material. We have medical devices that do full-body scans. We use lasers for almost everything — to read and write data on discs, to cut, to cauterize, to burn, to measure, to scan, and best of all, to tease the hell out of cats.

Okay, we don’t have rolling roads, dilating doors, jet packs, or flying cars. Why not?

Because they’re not cost effective, they’re not practical. They don’t give us utility. Technological possibility is not the same as practicality. Prediction does not guarantee production.

Part of the geek-appeal of the original Star Trek television series was that much of what it portrayed about the future was based on practicality. (Thank Gene Roddenberry , Bob Justman, Dorothy Fontana, and Gene L. Coon.) The starship’s computer understood human speech and responded with appropriate information. The doors of the Enterprise always opened for an approaching person (unless the grip forgot to pull the cord in time). Communicators flipped open and gave you instant access from anywhere. Medical beds gave real-time reports on patient health. Those were things that were understandable, desirable, and ultimately build-able.

During the first two years of the series, Star Trek’s production offices regularly received letters from people who wanted to implement the future portrayed. Architects asked where they could get sliding doors like the ones seen on the show for buildings they were currently designing. Medical engineers wanted to study sick bay’s med-beds. The US Navy came by to study the starship’s bridge. Two engineers watched an episode that showed a data stored on large silver disks (vinyl records painted silver) and began to speculate on how to store data optically; five years later, they demonstrated the first laserdisc player, the forerunner of all optical disc storage. And while the ships computer was under-used in most episodes, it certainly understood human speech well enough to be useful.

But the technology that surrounds us today, whether inspired by Star Trek or not, the things listed here (and a whole lot more) moved from the realm of prediction into the domain of production because a lot of smart people saw the value of researching, designing, and building the technology.

And that’s the point. The future we built is the future we built because this is the future we really wanted to build. Science fiction is great for imagining possibilities. Inevitabilities are something else entirely.

David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles.  His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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