Welcome to the Future (2001 edition)

Published November 11, 2011

This originally appeared in the January 2001 issue of Technology Decisions magazine. It’s an update of a similar piece I wrote in the early ’90s also called “Welcome to the Future” which appeared in the National Public Radio listeners’ guide.


As a fan of science fiction, I get a kick out of reading stories and seeing movies from the 1950s and ’60s where the writers imagined what the future — today — would hold. Arthur Clarke’s 2001 is the one you hear about most because we’re finally there, but it’s only one example of the space-based thinking that went on then.

Everyone looked up. Giant space stations, commonplace space travel, colonies on the Moon and other planets, faster-than-light travel — all these things we expected. We went to the moon, but we patted ourselves on the back and forgot about it.

We do have a space station (albeit a small one) and probes on Mars, but that’s not where science fiction happened. Sci-fi (or ‘s-f’ for you purists) happened down here. It happened not with the grand plans of the human race, but with the little things we use everyday. Sometimes it’s a good idea to step back and realize what an incredible future we built ourselves.

Wouldn’t it be cool to go back to 1967 and give NASA a box of scientific calculators? Or some Palm IIIs? My TI-30X probably has more computing power than most of the government’s computers did then. But the writers never imagined something as simple as handheld calculators; Robert Heinlein’s characters made frequent references to their “slipsticks” (slide rules, for those of you out of the loop).

Cell phones are so ubiquitous that they disappear, but — with Maxwell Smart being one of the few exceptions — no one expected people to be walking around with telephones in their pockets. I firmly believe that StarTacs should ring with the sound of Captain Kirk’s communicator.

Speaking of Star Trek‘s communicators, which were oh so cool back in the ’60s and ’70s: Grab a Motorola Talkabout for $30. As a friend of mine put it, “These are what we thought we were getting when we bought walkie-talkies when we were kids.”

(Even in the 1990s, Star Trek was behind the times. The camera carried by Voyager‘s doctor is the size of a thick hardcover book. Someone needs to buy him an Olympus Stylus.)

There are other sci-fi wonders around us. Personal computers are the obvious things, especially laptops and Palms. And the Internet is as close to magic as you can get — have you ever tried to explain to a non-techie how TCP/IP works?

The Global Positioning System, forward-looking infrared sensors on cars, cloning in the mainstream, ion-propulsion spaceships, biological warfare — the good and the bad of science fiction is all around us.

We don’t have artificial intelligence like 2001‘s HAL (who became operational on January 12, 1997, according to the story). We don’t have colonies on the moon. But when I can tap a few keys to have instant access to the collected knowledge of the world, or have a 20-minute procedure so I never need glasses again, or watch a movie with realistic dinosaurs that exist only on a computer, or have my father come home from heart surgery after only four days — well, we’re doing something right.

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