Sunday, January 23, 2022

Where's my Hovercraft?

John Waters (the Irish commentator, not the American director) sometimes seems a bit mad nowadays, but I still look at his "John Waters Unchained" email with interest. In a recent one he makes a point that has often occurred to me:

"In his 2011 book The Great Stagnation— How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, Tyler Cowen describes an America streaking ahead up to the end of the nineteenth century (free land and a host of technological breakthroughs like electricity, motor cars, air travel, railroads, harvesters, fertilisers, phonographs, telephones, household appliances, typewriters, tape-recorders, television and indoor plumbing) and then starting to slow down. ‘Today,’ he declares, ‘apart from the seemingly magical Internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what it was in 1953. We still drive care, use refrigerators and turn on the light switch.’

"It’s true [says John Waters]. When I was a schoolboy, we would get asked to write essays from time to time with the title, ‘Life in 2000 AD’, in which we would invent fantastic scenarios in which we, or our descendants, would swish around in hovercraft, live on food pills and spend our holidays on Mars. Yet, apart from the strange devices we hold up to our ears, anyone who died around 1960 would not, on returning for a (very!) brief haunting visit, find our modern homes or streetscapes all that puzzling."

Me again. I don't know what moral to draw from this, if any. I'm rather grateful for it because I prefer continuity to change. But the difference between 1960 and today seems much smaller than the difference between 1900 and 1960. G.K. Chesterton wrote that, once telephones had been invented, all other communications technology seemed just a variation on the same thing.

I remember in the early nineties, virtual reality was meant to be the next leap forward but that still hasn't really happened. I suppose "touchless technology" is making a big difference-- certainly transforming libraries-- but still a long way from hovercraft and teleporters. I was even surprised at one library conference to hear that libraries are facing challenges when it comes to VIRTUAL memory, which I had presumed was effectively infinite.

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