Coded gray.

Thursday 28 September 2000


Pic of the day: Surprisingly few of us are astronauts. (Screenshot from The Sims, again.)

Futures that never were

Back when I was a kid, in the 1960es, man went into space and even to the moon. (Woman stayed at home and cooked dinner, though eventually she burned her bra and went to the university.) We thought we knew what the future would hold: Glittering cities in space, and women in rather tight-fitting silvery clothes. And of course the flying cars.

The future has this irritating tendency to not conform to our expectations. There are no glittering cities in orbit, no mining towns on the moon, no men on Mars. And only one or two flying cars, at the neat price of about $1million each. The robots are not cleaning our living room, and the pavements for the most part stand quite still.


It is certainly possible to build cities in space now. But it is not feasible. Mostly, it is not commercially viable. There are so few things we need in space. Sure, you can grow larger crystals in zero gravity. But the demand for large crystals is not in the range of billions of dollars.

In the applications where space really makes a difference, the satellites abound: Broadcasting, weather, telecom, resource prospecting. Ironically, our eyes in space have found so much new minerals and fuel here on Earth, that we no longer need to mine asteroids or put large solar collectors in orbit.

The same holds true for those other great mainstays of the future. Why do you want robots, when you have all the people without a college degree? The difference is not all that great, and humans are more flexible. Plus, some of them score points for good looks. Robots don't, and to make a robot for housekeeping would cost more than the house. It is not feasible, even though it is probably possible by now.

The flying car remains in prototype, as it has been for a long time now. Sure, lots of people would like to have one; but few are willing to pay for it. Now there are lots of advances in ceramics, plastics and light metals; the flying car may come gradually closer year by year. But I doubt I will see one for the next couple decades, at last.

Even the flat screen TV, which was supposed to be a mainstay by 1980, is still rare. Why? Because frankly, most people have room for a normal TV, and they are not willing to pay for something they don't need.


Sometimes a new technology catches on, not because it is inherently superior, but because it is a bit superior and the price is right. For example, mobile phones have caught on like wildfire here in Scandinavia. There are two reasons I can see for this. Firstly, the mobile operators pushed the phones, at times actually giving them away for free. People like getting something for nothing; and once they had the phones, curiosity made them try. Second, the prices for ordinary phone calls had until recently been so high that mobile phones were not seen as extremely expensive in use. Here in Norway, competition on mobile phones started while ground line telephony was still in the hands of a monopoly.

Similarly, the Internet caught on in the USA because of the cheap local telephony there. It is unlikely that Europe could have fostered this invention even though we had the technology. A marked difference is that the USA had competition, while Europe had national telephone monopolies, typically state-owned. Once the Internet had grown to become manifestly useful, the rest of the world started to follow.

The cheap personal computers today are similarly results of a lucky accident: IBM decided to make a personal computer, and they were dumb enough to not see the potential in it. (Ironically, if they had, the potential would probably not have been realized.) So they gave away the specifications, allowing anyone to make a clone. And they let the company that delivered the operating system (a small upstart named Microsoft) also create a clone operating system for the clone computers. Competition started, prices fell, and people rushed in. By the time IBM understood what was happening, it was too late. They launched a new no-clone series, PS/2, and a new no-clone operating system, OS/2. These flopped grandly.

I have a few pencils lying at home. They look like color pencils, the ones kids use to draw. But they contain a pigment that reacts with water and becomes very intense, like ink. We call them "kopi-blyant" (copy pencil - I have not the faintest idea what they are originally called in English). These were the technology that was poised to oust the inkwell: Lightweight, eminently portable, easy to use. Sadly for them, the ball point pen suddenly showed up, and it was cheap. It is not hard to imagine an alternate timeline where the pencils won; but it did not happen. Today, I think few even know that they existed.

I guess what I want to say is that it's not sure that the best runner wins the race, or that the greatest hero wins the fight. The future is not a destiny, it just happens. Or not, as the case may be.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago

Visit the Diary Farm for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

I welcome e-mail:
Back to my home page.