“I had no idea I’d be this amazed.” My friend and I stood in the center of my living room, looking down upon the Roomba as it traced a strange path around and under furniture. In the weeks since this strange little machine was given to me, I’ve been expressing the same sentiment. Repeatedly. It’s quieter than I expected. And more flexible: It can map a room and understand the edges of irregularly shaped objects; it can inch its way along their perimeter and make turns with surprising degrees of subtlety or sharpness; it slows as it approaches obstructions to its path. And when those obstructions are us, my friend and I politely step aside. We both suddenly feel in the way, dead weight in the midst of a professional at work. We watch in awe. Our parents thought that, one day, we’d have a robot that could use a vacuum cleaner. Instead, we got a robot that is one. So long, Rosie. We have Roomba now.
A good friend of mine and his family were much earlier-adopters of the Roomba. They named it C-Sweepio, which was utter genius. Our Roomba has not been officially named, yet, but I will admit to thinking of it as Norby (after THE Norby). I haven’t told anyone that until right now. Ahhh. Feels so good to put that out there. While I’m at it, I might as well tell you that we also have a down blanket called Alex. I know, it’s weird to name a blanket. But I was on a roll there, confessionally. So now you know that I name things like blankets. I once knew a guy who had a pet hedgehog named Brian, which, if you ask me, is weirder than a blanket named Alex. Anyway.
The Roomba — excuse me, Norby — is the perfect representative of the future. The real future. It’s an incremental step forward that wouldn’t be particularly shocking to an inhabitant of the past. After all, we, the early adopters, are those inhabitants. We decided to set down our push vacuums and take up the Roomba instead. We did it with little convincing, a three-page user’s manual, and a big button that says “clean.” We understood the benefits, and even a bit about how the thing works. You see, Dyson helped us understand that engineering still has something to offer the humble domestic vacuum, and Google helped us to understand that the algorithm can offer us answers we didn’t even know we needed. Combined, we get a vacuum that doesn’t need us to push it around. It traces an autonomous and insect-like path across the floor, reminding us that as A.I.s — soft as they may be — continue to proliferate, it will be a quiet invasion; as if, rather than landing on the White House lawn to much fanfare, the aliens opted for a humble domestic exchange program instead. We’ll learn to live with them. We — my family — already have. Even the animals, who would flee the incoming push vacuum in terror, have reach a détente with Norby.
As impressive as the robotic vacuum is, it isn’t exactly the future artifact we’ve been waiting for. At least, not by the sound of many, many “It’s 2015, Where’s My Hoverboard” or “5 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Wrong” posts crammed through the tubes since the turn of the new year. No, apparently, we’ve been waiting for self-lacing shoes, shrinkydink pizzas, dog-walking drones, double neckties, and yes, the hoverboard. When we have all of that, we’ll know we’re really in the future. I saw another piece recently that got an equally hearty chuckle over 1995’s Strange Days, which assumed that, when we got the hang of extreme lifelogging, we’d store all of our memories on minidiscs and watch them like drugs. Minidiscs! Silly, right? Everyone knows we’ll use a tiny, subcutaneous chip instead, and all the data will live in “the cloud” and watching them obsessively will only destroy relationships that were doomed anyway. Right? Perhaps. Only time will tell. But that’s the benefit of twenty years, isn’t it? You get to be right for a little while. But that’s it. The story is the same; it’s only the newer, shinier accessories that make it seem more plausible. And meanwhile, all these exceedingly clever pop-culture futurism blunders make great clickbait. Hey, the future’s not as good/bad as we thought it would be! Click.
All those attention traps tell us is something we already know: We’re not very good at predicting the future. Sometimes we overshoot; sometimes we undershoot. Every time, we have the same blind spot. It’s called The Present. The Present is why Marty Jr. zones out with a VR headset — one that actually looks pretty darn Oculus-like, if you ask me — in the same future where Marty Sr. gets fired over fax. In 1989, the internet was still something you accessed by hacking a phone line, so why wouldn’t the fax machine be the future’s terminal? The many, incremental steps after “behold, Internet!” that have brought us to what we, of 2014, think of when we use the word, “internet,” were too numerous and, in the aggregate, much too dense a tangled web of causality and free will than anyone in 1989 could have sorted out accurately. Especially anyone working on a popcorn flick that, apparently, couldn’t afford to bring Crispin Glover back. To have had a better batting average on the level of, say, Minority Report, they’d have needed to shell out for a serious think tank. Ain’t many producers got time — or cash — for that.
But one thing is certain; anyone of 1989 would be astonished by the futurity 2014 has to offer. We have the internet. And it’s everywhere. Connection to the internet is both the key feature and the neato bell and whistle of just about every new product released this year. We’re doing the same thing we did with the radio in the 80s — stuffing it into everything, regardless of how pointless it might be. Honestly, I need a “connected” lamp in 2014 about as much as I needed a radio in the shower in 1989. But still, we have the internet. And it has driven the creation of all kinds of things that a time-traveler from 25 years ago would find fascinating. The computer, of course, which would look expectedly sleeker but would still be identifiable. The smartphone, which, yes, would look like the future’s phone (assuming it was seen held up to a person’s head who talks into it and then cross-referenced with this contemporary image) but would otherwise need to be explained in order to impress upon our traveler that it is not just a better phone, walkman, Game Boy, calculator, whatever. This thing is the Tricorder! It’s Al’s handheld Ziggy terminal! But then they’d still need to see it in action in order to get the massive leap forward that software and processing power had made. And they’d have no idea that we traded the customization and endurance of the 80s PC for smallness, cheapness and standardization, but that the (possible) next step is modular hardware. And we have the tablet. Which is all that stuff on slightly bigger screens. But hey, they’ll think it’s neat because it’s the PADD every TNG geek wanted. We have smartwatches, which will make a great impression because geeks of 1989 dreamed of being Dick Tracy but had to fake it with a calculator watch. No more. We have digital cameras! Incidentally, the first commercially available portable digital camera in the US was the Dycam Model 1, released in 1990. It was black and white only, very low-res, and very expensive ($1,000). Our traveler’s brain will already be all over the carpet because you showed them your smartphone which is also a camera. Kapow! Let our time-traveler follow you around for the day and they’ll see many other wonders everywhere they look: electric cars, plugged in and ready to drive; video chat; search engines, Google maps, social networking (they’ll have no idea but you’ll explain these things to them); iPad cash registers; Apple Pay; parking cameras; drones; solar panels galore; touch-operated parking kiosks; outpatient procedures for things that used to mean weeks in hospital thanks to laparoscopy; and all kinds of embedded progress that isn’t as immediately recognizable, like flat-screen TVs, energy-efficient appliances, the Nest, Sonos, my alarm-clock-lamp that emulates the sun by gradually lighting up rather than shocking you awake with a shrill alarm, etc. etc. etc. Oh, and they’ll notice how everyone spends TONS of time watching TV, but with these little boxes made possible by three things 1989 didn’t think about much: the internet, video on demand, and at least three major corporations. You get the point. The future is here. It just doesn’t look like the future because it’s the present.
Needless to say, our present, despite any complaints we may have about it, offers so many things that would greatly exceed the expectations of our forebears. And of course, many things that would not. But there’s that word: things. Things are an index of experience. They’re what we make to meet present needs, and what we make to anticipate future ones. But they are not the future. It’s funny how “the future of ________” is almost always filled in with a magisterium, but demonstrated by a thing. The future of computing usually means computers. The future of entertainment usually means devices, cameras, TVs, boxes, files. Even the future of healthcare usually means things — chemical compounds, robots, screens. The future has become a shorthand for product development and industrial design. And that’s ok. We’re a creative people, after all. We make things. In fact, we understand the world and ourselves by making. But surely there is a future beyond things. What about the future of being? The future of relationships between people? There’s certainly a profound connection between the things we make and who we are as a people. Sometimes more than others, it’s seems like a chicken-and-egg relationship; which comes first isn’t as clear as we might assume. For instance, would I be the same me had I lived 100 years ago? Probably not. In so many ways. But on the other hand, I have choices — today — about who I am and who I am going to be regardless of any technology — any thing that is available to me now or that I might be interested in waiting for. I can choose to make fitness a part of my life, regardless of whether or not there’s a good wearable out there to count my steps and spit out a sparkline at the end of the month. I have choices — so many choices — about how I live and nurture my character that are completely independent from the things that are made for me, or even the things that I make myself.
There’s a beautiful future ahead, full of fascinating, wonderful things. But it would be a mistake to think that the future can only be seen through things, and a shame to arrive there, empty of self. Now is the time to plan for that arrival, but not for what will be there waiting for us. For who we will be when we get there. Who are we? Are we growing in consciousness? In wisdom? In maturity? In empathy? In light of these questions, the present becomes all the more valuable, and the future can wait. The future is the present’s dessert. As in, get now right, and later will take care of itself.
Heavy Rotation: This week, a few things. First, The Longest Mixtape, 1,000 songs for you from Caribou. Seeing as there are only ten-thousand-odd minutes in a week, and this thing has a thousand songs, and some of them are over ten-minutes long, I bet I couldn’t even get through the entire thing once between now and my next letter. So, I can’t tell you it’s all good. But I bet it’s pretty close. Second, if you’re looking for something strange, check out “Xe,” by Ze. Lars Gotrich, All Songs Considered’s correspondent of all things loud and weird, calls it “a thrilling 18 minutes of twisty-turny prog.” Third, I like Michael, by Les Sins. It’s fun. Fourth, I really, really like A Lesson Unlearnt, by Until the Ribbon Breaks.
Recent Tabs: My new hero. This bamboo tower produces water from air. 11 Amazingly Dated Opening Credits To ’80s Sci-Fi & Fantasy TV Shows. One was called Manimal and it wasn’t a joke. If this face hacking doesn’t end up in a music video in the next few months then something is terribly wrong. Somehow both Star Trek and Star Wars ships manage to appear among the top 25 photos on Flickr. But, then again, why wouldn’t they? Spider-Man scope-creep. For my proud readers in the D, here are some big, beautiful pictures of Detroit in the 1940s. And finally, this, from Sagan. Because he’d be outraged that anyone thinks the Moon is a planet.