Category Archives: Technology

Say hello to Life in the Future

Life in the Future - Delphic Study

I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.

My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.

Life in the FutureThe predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:

  • Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
  • Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
  • Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
  • Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
  • The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)

Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking.  The influence of the  preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology  (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.

Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.

Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.

Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:

  • Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
  • A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
  • In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network

…to name but three!

If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!Futuristic capes

*Life in the Future was written by Michael Ross-Macdonald, Michael Hassell and Stuart McNeill. I can’t remember how I came by it (I wasn’t keeping a diary back then!), but it’s essentially a broad and very readable look at predicting the future and how people affect it by the way they organise themselves and live their lives. I realised as I got older that  it was written with a clear environmental slant which was very new at the time. I owe it a lot.

Atomkraft? Nein danke!

Smiling sun: Atomkraft? Nein danke.Diary date: 18th May, 1986

My diary for this period 28 years ago makes a series of slightly concerned references to an ‘apparently quite serious’ nuclear accident in ‘a place called Chernobyl‘ – a previously unheralded town in the then Soviet republic of Ukraine.*  With typical reluctance, the Soviet authorities only agreed that an accident had taken place after the radiation alarms went off at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden – over 1,000 kilometres away.

‘Apparently quite serious’ turned out to be a significant understatement. Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history (in terms of cost and lives lost) and is one of only two to reach the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale – along with the Fukushima Daiichi tsunami-related meltdown in 2011. Its effects continue to be felt to this day.

A decade earlier, the accident at Three Mile Island had thrown doubt on the future of nuclear power, but Chernobyl cast an even longer shadow. It quickly became impossible to imagine a completely ‘safe’ nuclear plant, many countries began scaling back their nuclear ambitions, and 70’s-style ‘Nuclear power? No thanks!‘ (or more frequently, ‘Atomkraft? Nein danke!’) stickers began to proliferate once again.

Yet despite all this, the industry survived and eventually began to thrive. In many ways, the longer-term impact of Chernobyl was to promote the international nuclear cooperation which has resulted in today’s more robust global safety regime.

Nuclear remains controversial for obvious reasons, but with the end of fossil fuel supplies in sight and global warming an increasing threat, many countries – the UK included – are returning to it as the possible answer both to longer-term energy independence and challenging climate change targets. Even some of the early environmentalists who were instinctively anti-nuclear – such as Whole Earth Catalogue author Stewart Brand – have begun suggesting we should revise our thinking. Brand now sees nuclear as the cleanest current form of reliable, grid-scale energy generation, and believes there are practical ways of dealing with related issues such as reprocessing, waste storage and weaponisation.

Remembering how I felt watching events in Russia unfold, it’s hard to believe that the push for ‘green’ energy is yet to yield a resounding winner. And if the post-Chernobyl nuclear makeover continues, it may be some time yet before the incentives to develop clean renewables are quite as strong again.

*These sorts of national boundary changes are nothing new to followthehumming – and current events in Ukraine suggest more may be on the way before too long.

A picture of the future

old cameraDiary date: 8th April, 1986

On this day back in 1986 I was excitedly on my way to the chemists to pick up some photos I’d taken on a weekend away with the university squash team. They featured a lovely girl that I was fairly sure I had just started going out with – I was never very good at reading the signs – so I was looking forward to seeing them even more than usual.

I told this story to my teenage children the other day, and they literally didn’t believe it – least of all the part about the prospective girlfriend. However, it also didn’t escape their attention that I was describing paying someone at the chemists to create and print out photographs for me.

When you think about it, the whole process really was rather unwieldy.

In those days, you bought a one-time-use roll of light-sensitive film which you put carefully into your camera, snaking it round a spool before you closed the case and hoped everything was attached where it should be. You then went about your business taking photos – rather inexplicably in multiples of 12 depending on which film you’d bought – after which you needed to open your camera, pray that everything had worked, and insert another roll. You took your finished film to the nearest chemist or photography shop, and you waited a few days. Then you went back, handed over a fee, and were given a sealed envelope containing your photos. You had no idea if any of them were any good, but you bought them all anyway, sight unseen. As soon as you were out of the shop, you tore open the envelope to find out what you’d just bought, hoping against hope that they weren’t someone else’s pictures. Finally, you selected the ones you wanted to keep (the bar was set very low in those days), put them in a pile with all the rest (or – if you were very organised – in an album), and off you went again.

In comparison, taking photos in 2014 is undeniably sci-fi-like:

1. You take a photo. You could have taken a video just as easily, but hey, you’re old-fashioned like that. And by the way, you probably used your telephone to do it, not your camera: (a) because you can, and, (b) because your phone never, ever leaves your side.

2. You look at your photo on your phone as soon as you’ve taken it and decide if you like it. Maybe you edit it a bit if it isn’t quite what you were after – unless you’re aiming for something like a #nomakeupselfie, that is.

3. Once you’re happy (and regardless of where you happen to be at the time), you probably share your photo immediately with your entire circle of friends and family, using the handy global computer network to which you are almost constantly connected.

4. Within a few minutes, people from all over the world start telling you what they think of your snap – and if they like it too, they might even share it right away with their own friends.

I know we don’t have flying cars yet (come on people, let’s get that sorted!), but photography really has done everything it can to make up for that particular disappointment.

Now all we have to do is find a way to guarantee that all the pictures I take this year will be stored and accessible somewhere in 28 years time – just like that picture of my squash-playing girlfriend, which is still tucked away safely upstairs in my student photo album.

This was a bookshelf

Diary date: 20th March, 1986Bookshelf

This was a bookshelf. It contained books, in which individual pieces of paper were bound together into a coherent whole. As a visitor to my house, my bookshelves told you a little about me, and what I thought was important and worthwhile. They gave you something to look at and to talk about. They helped you guess whether we were likely to get on, or had interests in common. Their arrangement gave you a sense of how I thought. Their coloured spines brought the room to life.

Today, my Kindle e-reader holds more books than all the bookshelves I’ve ever owned. But when you see it sitting on my kitchen table, it tells you nothing about me, my life, how I think, or what I might believe. It speaks only to me.

On the wall of my home, I used to keep silver discs piled one on top of the other, filled with songs and stories. Without you asking, they told you what lifted my spirit and spoke to my heart. Their covers brightened the room. Their number and nature told you part of my story.

Today, my iPod music player holds more songs than seems logically possible – you have one of your own that looks almost the same. But when you enter my house, my iPod tells you nothing about me. My music is a closed book unless we decide to open it together.

Next to my bookshelves, I kept jumbled stacks of films I’d enjoyed enough to want to own. When you looked at them, you guessed what made me laugh or cry, what thrilled or excited me. You compared my collection to yours, and made a note of films you thought you might like.

Today, the films I love are hidden from view, neatly stored and hermetically sealed in the cloud. Tours are available only on request.

Technology has created new spaces and new ways for you to learn about me through my likes and dislikes, and through what I keep, buy, show and share online. But in its headlong forward rush, it’s forgotten to take care of the world much closer to home. If I invite you to visit, I’d like you to know a little of me without either of us having to try.

Now That’s What I Call…

Diary date: 23rd February, 1986

Having never been much of a shopper, it’s rare for my diary to mention things I may have bought at the time. But I made an exception on this date in 1986 and recorded with great excitement that I had belatedly added the cassettes of “Now That’s What I Call Music 3” to the others in my collection. For obvious reasons, I’m going to ignore the fact that the series has just reached number 87.

At the time, ‘Now!‘ felt ridiculously revolutionary. Companies like K-Tel and Ronco had been advertising and releasing ‘Various Artists’ compilations since the 70’s, but the tracks they had access to meant that you largely bought the records for the sake of two or three songs – or that you were buying material that already felt dated.

‘Now!’ was the first time two major labels – EMI and Virgin – had joined forces, and the result was a track list that was much more representative of the charts at the time. Not only that, but a combination of slick operations and genuine enthusiasm seemed to turn around each new ‘Now!’ more and more quickly. We started buying them as relatively representative of current music rather than out of a sense of retrospective nostalgia.

The other advantage of ‘Now!’ was the instant boost that it gave your mix tapes. Having previously spent hours on Sunday evenings with a microphone up against the radio – making excruciatingly poor quality recordings of Radio 1‘s chart show – ‘Now!’ gave you both high quality and a half-decent choice. Songs you hadn’t liked first time around were suddenly more appealing just because they were easily available.

With its numerous spin-offs – genre-specific editions, computer games, karaoke, quizzes, retrospectives, even its own TV channel – and its ability to react to market and technological change, ‘Now!’ has been a consistent thirty-year success story. The brand has adapted to survive the introduction of reproducible formats like CDs and MP3s, the advent of mass personal storage in the form of MP3 players, and the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster. As such, it stands in marked contrast to the music business as a whole, an industry which spent years in denial of the fact that – whether it was desirable or not – digital music distribution had changed everything.