Sunday, November 7, 2010


Every day the future arrives and it seems pretty much like the thousands of days that have gone before. Instead of the flying cars we were promised, we get traffic nightmares as cities try to add one more lane to the already congested freeways. And Dick Tracy’s wristwatch with the two-way communication to headquarters pales in comparison to any throwaway cell phone used by fourth graders with permissive parents, but we don't seem better off as a species just because we are talking more.

“But, Matt,” you say as though I were in the room, “aren’t cell phones the modern day equivalent of the Star Trek communicator? Aren’t the Robomow automatic lawn mower and the Roomba autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner the next step in human evolution? Now we can just sit around with TV images being displayed directly onto our video display goggles.”

No. And no. No, no, no! We don’t have food replicators or the ability to transport solid matter from one place to another. Captain Kirk and the Jetsons were lying to us. Our space station barely has enough room for grown men and women to maneuver comfortably. Every time they talk to us from space they are crammed together and look like five or six people trying to use a single-seat outhouse.

The idea of technology making our lives futuristic, culminating in the personal robot servant that roles around on one wheel answering our every beck and call, has not happened, and it never will. We are going to sit on this planet for some time to come (I’ll go out on a limb and predict that we are going to sit on this planet until we are extinct) and find joy in simple things that seem futuristic, like cruise control, web cams, and robotic litter boxes for pampered cats.

The rest is a pipe dream, good for science fiction movies but nothing else. Certainly not for how people should plan to live out the rest of their days.

Advancements will continue as scientists and explorers and inventors tinker with existing knowledge and expectations, but not on the order of the flying car. If we can’t even manage two-dimensional travel without coming up with new psychological afflictions like “road rage,” there’s no way we could successfully deal with adding “up” to our choices of “left” and “right.”

Similarly, those of you expecting moon colonies and x-ray glasses have to get your noses out of your comic books and take a look at real life. Other than having a curiosity for discovery, we humans are just another life form trying to get food into our mouths and finding shelter in inclement weather. We should be grateful that our grocery store clerks only have to drag our frozen food packages over the bar code reader rather than trying to find an iced-over price tag.

We should also be grateful that there are still people willing to do such an interesting job, but as I’ve been saying for many years, in the future we will still need cab drivers and grocery store clerks and soccer coaches. We will not be populated entirely by highly educated and overpaid computer programmers ever.


The day when we can fill the grocery basket and simply walk out the door as a scanner instantly tabulates the cost of each and every item (and accurately deducts the amount from our bank account) is not going to arrive. Don’t waste your time waiting for it.

If I’m right, then, what exactly are we waiting around for? Am I all doom and gloom and waiting for the 21st century equivalent of the Dark Ages?

Well, yes. And no. Mostly no.

As our expectations settle in and we become better able to discern between realistic advancements and science fiction buffoonery (even Captain Kirk occasionally walked into a malfunctioning automatic door), we will realize that we don’t want to relegate what constitutes real life to a bunch of unfeeling machines. We (or at least most of us) will not want to be part of the Matrix.

The point of the future is that there is one. Having the next day arrive, be it sunny or foul weathered, is better than the alternative. In the meantime, the average citizen will have to be happy with the fact that they can buy shampoo and conditioner in the same bottle, and that they can track down old high school chums on a social media platform only to discover why they never kept in touch with old high school chums.

That’s the real future, folks. Forget about the robots.

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