Dear friend, here’s yesterday’s news…

Letter and penI spent a good deal of August and September 1986 writing letters and postcards to family and friends as I Inter-Railed my way around Europe. Number one in my address book was my then girlfriend, and my diary catalogues almost every letter to her – when I started and finished it, and when I posted it. I then exercise myself estimating when she’s likely to have received it, read it, and sent a reply.

In practical terms, I reckon the optimal pan-European turnaround time back then was about a week – plenty of time for a letter to have been overtaken by events on the ground. Communicating with that kind of built-in delay meant we were always dealing with yesterday’s news rather than what was going on right now.

28 years later, penning a carefully handwritten letter that takes a decent while to plan and write – then waiting a week or more for a reply – is a rarity. Instead, we’re sharing multimedia travellers’ tales interactively and in real-time.

For a quick, private and often ongoing exchange, text messages, email or Apple’s iMessage do the job. For everyday pictures and videos, there’s also Snapchat, the messaging app that allows you to send captioned media that can be seen once for just a few seconds. For day-to-day stuff and a form of public online diary, Twitter is frequently first choice. More arty photos get posted to Instagram, with a quick plug via Twitter if they’re really good. And of course for the genuinely committed, an ongoing blog sets your inner writer free.

Finally – for general updates and photos aimed at friends – there’s early social media leader Facebook, ironically becoming rather passé with many of the younger crowd these days.

Whatever the chosen medium, all this communication is bite-sized and instant – long gone are the days of reading last week’s news.

The success of a message is quickly evaluated by the nature and quantity of the reaction to it – replies, Retweets, Favourites, Likes, +1’s, and so on. Much of this messaging is public, so the pressure on your communication to perform is significant. A supposedly witty post or funny photo that bombs is an embarrassment, while one that gets shared by others to their own followers generates kudos.

Mercifully – at least as far as I know – all the letters that my diary mentions have been rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history. Just what will happen to the uncounted billions of messages, photos and videos that the world now constantly shares, only time will tell.

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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.

Tour de France 2014 – coming soon to a road near me

In another very satisfying case of things coming full circle on followthehumming, my diary entry for 4th June, 1986 describes the outline of that year’s Tour de France and the prospect of Frenchman Bernard Hinault taking on American team mate Greg LeMond. Here we are 28 years later, and – despite living in Yorkshire – I somehow find myself living on the route of the first stage of this year’s Tour.

In ’86, both Hinault and LeMond rode for the same team – La Vie Claire. Hinault had won the race the previous year and had publicly promised to support the Californian this time around. The events that unfolded during the course of the 23 stages that followed provided one of the Tour’s most unforgettable races.

Despite his promise, the Frenchman appeared torn between supporting LeMond and racing away to claim his own record sixth Yellow Jersey. In an unforgettable stage ending in L’Alpe D’Huez, Hinault broke away in a self-destructive solo attack, only to be reeled in by LeMond before the end. The two riders crossed the finishing line together hand-in-hand and wreathed in smiles. It seemed as if peace had broken out and LeMond’s title was all but sealed – only for his team mate to declare later that night that the race was not yet over.

In the end, LeMond won the General Classification and the first of his three Tour titles, while Hinault took second place and the polka-dot jersey for the King of the Mountains. Their fascinating story is told in full in Richard Moore’s excellent book, Slaying the Badger.

With about a month to go until this year’s Tour gets under way, the difficulties of having two potential winners in the same team are featuring once again, with current Yellow Jersey holder Chris Froome declaring that he would prefer Australian Richie Porte as his Team Sky number two, instead of 2012 winner Bradley Wiggins.

So much has changed since the era of LeMond and Hinault that it’s reassuring to know there are events like the Tour which still have a timeless quality about them. I’ve written before about the way sport can provide a sense of continuity in a world desperately clinging to the coat tails of Moore’s Law – and cycling’s greatest race certainly fits that bill.

How to write a novel

Out, Brief CandleOn the one hand, I’m feel like I’m the last person to give advice on how to write a good novel. On the basis of sales alone, this is certainly true. On the other hand, I have actually managed to produce one (Out, Brief Candle – currently free to download for Kindle to celebrate this post!), so maybe it’s worth a word or two on the experience.

My diary entry for 26th May, 1986 contains my  first-ever throwaway mention of the idea of attempting a novel. Little did I realise then quite how long it would take me (almost 20 years) and how much I would change in the course of writing it (a lot).

Here’s how it was for me.

In my case, I started with a theme. I was inspired by a quote from a book called The Shape of Chaos by David Helsa. It went something like this:

There can be  little or no communication between man and man, for words are the names of memories, and no two men have the same memories.

As a language student at the time, I was fascinated by Helsa’s idea of the difficulty involved in genuine communication and I wanted to explore it further. I decided there and then to make this the crux of my story.

So far so good. I started to think this novel-writing stuff wasn’t such a big deal after all.

Then came genre and setting. I thought a lot about this, but my late-teenage lack of life experience meant I only felt qualified to write about an imaginary world where I couldn’t be too wrong about things – so I chose to set the novel in the near-future and ended up with science fiction.

Next, I started thinking about plot, characters and general planning. At this point, I reckon I lost about five to eight years during which I graduated, started work, moved house a few times, got married, ruminated about my imaginary world a lot, and wrote embarrassingly little.

Psion Series 3cThe breakthrough came in my late-twenties, when I got fed up with all the thinking, mulling and pondering, and realised I just needed to get the hell on and write something. This turned out to be a revelation. I wrote unhindered by preconceptions of where my story was going; instead, I did it just to find out what would happen next. It was like reading a story I’d never read before, watching it being told as it appeared on the screen in front of me line by line. I learned about characters as I created them. I explored settings as they came to me. It was both freeing and exciting. It was also productive. Despite the demands of family life and eventually three children, the bulk of Out, Brief Candle was written in the following few years on a series of small personal organisers, starting with a tiny Psion Series 3c (pictured) and ending with the big daddy of them all – the Psion Series 7.

Then came the train crash. I wrote thousands of words and had a great time producing them, but I also had a mess on my hands: plot strands that didn’t link, inconsistencies everywhere, character flaws and unexplained events by the bucketload. If I ever wanted to reach the end, I knew I had to start taking things seriously. I started re-imagining and re-describing my characters, now I knew who they were. I created a long overdue timeline of the principal events. I drew out my settings and created backstories where I realised I didn’t know them. And finally, I decided how my story would end, and I worked out what I needed to do to get from here to there. It was a different way of writing and it took a while, but it was worth it.

This gear-change was the best decision I ever made. Without it, I would never have extracted myself from the dog’s dinner I’d created.

I finally wrote my last few words in 2002. I made a pact with myself not to fiddle with the text any further – however strong the urge – printed out a clean copy, and optimistically sent it to myself via registered post as proof of copyright.

When I read Out, Brief Candle now, I can hear myself change over the years it took to write. It’s a story in two parts, and Part Two could easily have been written by some new guy drafted in to replace the author of Part One, who was presumably too exhausted to continue. Despite its many flaws, I’m very proud of it. If you’re out there wondering whether to write something of your own, I’d definitely give it a go. But remember that – like me – you might end up being in it for the long haul.

*I’m afraid I’ve lost the exact original quote, but it went very much like this: “Man longs for knowledge but he has only the words of his speech to use, and these are inadequate. There can be  little or no communication between man and man, for words are the names of memories, and no two men have the same memories. Moreover, words are little-suited to knowledge since each word is surrounded by the undertones of its own history. Finally, words are inadequate for piercing the essence of reality, since they are merely the indicators of our own memories and these being merely contingent can no more get at the true reality than a spider that has put its nest in the corner of a palace can get at the total reality of the palace.”

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.