Smelling Roses

I remember a commercial some years ago that talked about how someday we would have every song ready to play at the touch of a finger, and someday we would check into a hotel and they would have whatever movie we wanted to watch. Someday, no matter where you were, you would be able to have a face-to-face call with your loved ones. And they said all this with the kind of gravitas you’d expect to be reserved for curing cancer or discovering teleportation. It all seemed like a nice idea at the time, but impossibly far off.

And now, for all intents and purposes, we’d just call that a normal day with a 4G cellular signal. The result, of course, was not world peace or a marked improvement in the general mirthfulness of first world populations. In fact, what we’ve ended up with is a kind of disaffected mundanity. These magical boxes on our desk, in our pockets, on the coffee table at home, in our entertainment centers and even now on our glasses are just the ordinary trappings of another ordinary day.

Is it that we somehow missed the moment to marvel at technology, at our own advancement? Were we moving too fast to stop and give ourselves something like a moment of contentment? Did we forget that we promised ourselves we were going to be really impressed?

Before we begrudge the blasé disaffectedness of the the spoiled modern state of humankind, let’s take a moment to recognize that this is probably a completely normal reaction. Ignoring for a moment that we wouldn’t get a lot of work done if we walked around all the time being really impressed at ourselves, there’s also the simplicity of the fact that we normalize. Sure, I may not be able to imagine what it’s like to live, say, blind, because that experience is so far outside the bounds of my current context, but I’m willing to bet if I went blind that within a decade or two it would just be the state of things for me. Humans are predisposed to become accustomed to the normal, the banal, the ordinary.

In so many ways, we live in a science fiction story that might have been written as few as a couple dozen years ago. Not only would some of the things we take for granted have seemed fantastic prior to the turn of the millennium, but some might have even been considered impossible in this short amount of time. But, of course, no one a couple of dozen years ago would have written this science fiction story. They would have written about political upheaval, or people eating synthetic pills, or organ farms. Sure, bits and pieces would have had an eerie resemblance to our reality, but overall they would have gotten — and in many cases did get — it all wrong, because they would have focused on the wrong things.

It’s always funny to me to see what people predicted the world would be like in the future, particularly when I’m living in it. I look at something like this link of 19th century artists predicting life in the year 2000, and it’s anachronistically hilarious. Certainly, there are hints of things in these drawings that at least have a modern analog. After all, we do have machines that do some of the things these images suggest, such automatic dictation and video calls. It’s just they don’t do it the way the images suggest.

It’s because, I think, when people predict the future they predict it almost taking place in their own time. Future predictions are, after all, just a reflection of the time in which they are made. They are the power fantasies of a world trapped in a particular moment. The pictures in the link still display what looks to us a lot like a late 19th century France, it’s just that it looks like a 19th century France that has strange 19th century contraptions that do late 20th century or early 21st century stuff.

Here in not-the-19th-century, we live in a context and a moment where the fact that we essentially have a compendium of the world’s knowledge at our disposal pretty much all the time in a machine that fits in our pocket is just the way of things. These things that should be amazing to us — including to those of us who can remember the 1980s when a Walkman or digital watch was an expensive piece of advanced technology — just aren’t all that impressive. In short, we’ve gotten bored with the amazing. As Louis C.K. famously put it, “Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

I want to bemoan the fact that no matter how far we come as a species, or a culture, or a community, we seem almost incapable of feeling like we’ve crossed any kind of finish line or reached a meaningful goal.

“Hey world, we have giant metal tubes that can fly in the sky!”
Yeah, but luggage fees, amIright?

“Wow, we mapped the entire genome and can clone things.”
Pffff, and all we made was some dumb sheep.

“Hey guys, this thing the size of a tin of sardines has the answer to every question I can basically think of asking.”
Yeah, unless you’re on AT&T, then it just has a no signal message, high-five!

You look at a piece of technology like the Xbox One, and think for a second how far ahead of the curve it is. Imagine taking an Xbox One back to yourself twenty-five years ago. What would that version of you had said, if you’d responded to their amazement by saying, “Yeah, but they were going to make us be online all the time and I can’t even buy used games”? Aside from asking what used games were, they may have just looked at you in disappointment and said, “But, look at how amazing this is!”

Like I said, I want to bemoan this quality that I feel like exists within so many of us. I think it’s something a lot of us recognize, even within ourselves, which is why the Louis C.K. bit resonates so strongly. And yet, I find that I don’t actually wish we were different, because I think this curse of boredom with the amazing is what got us to amazing in the first place.

Let’s not forget that to someone from a few hundred years earlier, the amazing world of 19th century France must have looked like it’s own kind of futuristic utopia. A hundred years from now — even fifty or twenty — our kids or grandkids will be using gadgets and machines that would seem impossibly advanced now. And, yes — spoiler-alert — they will use them as if they were the most mundane, boring, ordinary pieces of hyper-poly-synthetic-nanocarbon-devices since sliced Future-Bread (tm).

That’s the thing about standing on the shoulders of giants. You never make any progress if you spend all of your time standing next to the giant and pointing out how mind-bogglingly tall he is. Eventually you have to get up there and use him as a stepping stool, acting almost as if he’s not even there. He’s just your weirdly giant-shaped legs. This apparently infinite wellspring we have to see something amazing and lurch quickly into a “meh” reaction, is probably not a bad thing. It’s an annoying thing, and probably wouldn’t win our species a lot of friends at future intergalactic space parties, but it does keep the ball rolling.

Though I do try to take a moment, particularly when I’m feeling myself all put-upon in this advanced world of mine, and recognize the privilege of it all. When I’m stuck in traffic, I realize that the very fact that I go twenty miles to and from home to get to work (not to mention that my work is only an eight hour day) would have been unthinkable not so amazingly long ago. When my satellite dish reception goes bad during a thunderstorm, I try to remember not only that when I was a child there were only 4 television stations on my 14-inch television, but that I have some five or six other devices ready to deliver entertainment.

It’s an old saying about stopping to smell the roses, and it’s a good saying to keep in mind, but most of the time, when I stop to smell the roses, the guy who planted those roses in the first place isn’t there anymore. He’s moved on to bigger and better things. And so should I.

Besides, roses are so five minutes ago.

Comments

Something to keep in mind is that in spite of the rapid pace of advancement these days, improvement is still incremental, and that gives us time to both adapt to the new thing and find ways to be unimpressed by it. The pace at which advancement occurs is theoretically increasing, but even that increase occurs in a gradual curve rather than a massive spike.

Instantly streaming HD video of just about anything you could imagine didn't just happen overnight - we went through the growing pains of early Youtube videos, poor quality Netflix videos, "buffering" and a vast array of gradual improvements that led to where we are now. If on demand HD streaming and worldwide access to such came into the world fully formed, I do think we would be both duly impressed and rather shocked.

Your example of dropping the Xbox One into the hands of the you twenty five years ago is a perfect example; we didn't just jump from the Atari 2600 to the modern gaming PC or console, we got there through a series of less impressive increments, and we will likely continue to do the same for another 25 years.

Excellent piece. I often find myself both marveling at how far we have come technologically and bemoaning said technology when it doesn't do everything the exact way that I want. I especially like your point that we somehow "missed" the grand evolution to what we have today. It's almost as if some of these amazing things just happened; that we woke up one day with these amazing devices all around us and never actually celebrated that they arrived.

I seem to remember an old AT&T landline phone that featured a small screen and camera. It was incredibly expensive, but if you had one, and whoever you were calling had one, you could have a face to face conversation over the phone. Now, I never actually saw a functioning model, but I thought that it was the coolest thing ever. Now we have a multitude of ways to experience that face to face conversation, yet I find that, sometimes, I would rather just use IM to converse with far away family, as I don't want to be bothered with putting on my headset or some such.

Again, very nice article, now I am all thoughtful...

Nicely said. Reminds me of Louis CK's "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy."

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8m...

lostlobster wrote:

Nicely said. Reminds me of Louis CK's "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy."

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8m...

Maybe because he mentioned it directly :p

imbiginjapan wrote:
lostlobster wrote:

Nicely said. Reminds me of Louis CK's "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy."

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8m...

Maybe because he mentioned it directly :p

Really? I... uh... missed that.

I'll let myself out.

imbiginjapan wrote:
lostlobster wrote:

Nicely said. Reminds me of Louis CK's "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy."

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8m...

Maybe because he mentioned it directly :p

Heh.

Also:

Imagine taking an Xbox One back to yourself twenty-five years ago. What would that version of you had said, if you’d responded to their amazement by saying, “Yeah, but they were going to make us be online all the time and I can’t even buy used games”?

They'd probably respond with some barely comprehensible English and marvel at how much Castle Crashers is like playing a cartoon.

I was three, after all.

Something to think about regarding predictions of the future:

I always feel that such predictions as the 19th century French artist's were so grounded in his/her own reality not because they knew nothing else than their own technologies, but they needed to ground it in familiar terms, in order for others to accept.

Great article!

Oddly enough that link to the 19th century paintings has below it a link to an article about Domino's delivering pizza with a freaking unmanned drone. Now that, my friends, is progress.

WipEout wrote:

Something to think about regarding predictions of the future:

I always feel that such predictions as the 19th century French artist's were so grounded in his/her own reality not because they knew nothing else than their own technologies, but they needed to ground it in familiar terms, in order for others to accept.

"Jean-Marc, ze robots, c'est magnifique, j'adore. Mais qu'est-ce que c'est, zese clozes? Trousairs meant to be torn apahrt? Des chapeaus, wiz ze stickair still on zem? Shoes sans socks? Non non non, no wahn will accept such a zing! C'est laughable! Hohn-hee-hohn-hee-hohn!"

Spoiler:

I own that written French accent, except the laugh, that's Catherine Tate.

Sorry I didn't read the article. I just wanted to write I love thinking about who approved that Ringo photo. Jeebus.

Abu5217 wrote:

Also:

Holy crap, I remember those! Was that really '93?

Something that occurred to me recently while watching old Dr Who episodes:

Back in the "classic" period of TV science fiction, the 60s/70s/80s. the closest thing anyone had to a modern mobile phone would have been something like the Star Trek communicator - just a simple wireless communication device, no apps or web browser or even a screen. That was the best most people back then could imagine.

When the new Who came along, a repeated theme with one companion after another was the Doctor modifying their phone so they could stay in touch with their family back on Earth. In several episodes a contrast was drawn between their fantastic adventures with the Doctor and the ordinary family issues back home.

Think about that: during the period Dr Who was off the air, from 1989 to 2005, the mobile phone went from something so fantastic that even science fiction writers didn't dare to imagine it, to something so common and familiar that it could be used as the very symbol of mundane everyday reality.

I often realize how fortunate I am these days simply due to the existence of the internet. Not only does it make the things mentioned or at least alluded to in the article possible (information about anything you can think of, digital distribution of video games, etc.), without the internet, I would not have gotten the job I've had for the last 6 years (the last 3 of which I've been a full-time, work-from-home employee). And it's the best job I've ever had. Thanks, internet!

And I'm old enough to remember when telephones and televisions used dials to operate. So yeah, I've seen a lot of change. Viva la technology!

Sometimes I miss my old UHF/VHF TV. But then I turn on my PS3 and watch Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and remember why that old TV sucked.

I marvel at all of this stuff but, then again, I marvel at how I'm sitting here able to contemplate this stuff anyway. How mysterious it is that these bits of the universe came together just so they can think of themselves as a corporeal being.

Life itself is full of wonders and has been ever since we have had the capacity to consider them. When we stop taking them for granted even the most mundane things have the ability to reveal a depth to existence that's beyond imagination. All of these things we've invented were supposed to give us more time to appreciate the wonders of life. Surely we can stand on the shoulders of giants while appreciating the view...

Yeah yeah yeah, nice article, GRAMPA
*skates away on hoverboard*

When the Curiosity rover landed, this is what I said, on Metafilter:

OK, so, we just pulled off the most complex landing ever, completely like something out of a Star Wars movie. And I, at least, watched a simulation of what was going on using my personal computer, which was computing and displaying the positions of all the planets and the simulated position of the lander. Simultaneously, using a different program, I was streaming two separate video feeds from some unknown location on a worldwide data network. One showed the entire launch staff in high resolution video, while the other showed an ongoing commentary track, with some of the same footage from the first stream.

And I talked about this happening, live, with people from all over the world, many of whom were using their telephones to watch the same video. But they were doing it wirelessly, with their phone company delivering custom data streams just for them, over the air.

Today, August 6, 2012, is officially the future. This is no longer the world I grew up in. It is a stunningly different place from when I watched men landing on the Moon as a toddler, on a tiny, crappy tube television, with grainy black and white video.

We live in a world of marvels. As a youth, I dreamed about having tools like this at my fingertips.

Hell, I get amazed and thankful sometimes about being able to turn on a tap, and get all the clean, fresh water I want, for probably less than a penny a gallon. And then I can pull immense amounts of power off the local grid; my house feed can deliver about 60,000 watts of power. To just my house. And I can pull that 60K watts all day, every day, for as long as I can pay for it.

This stuff doesn't just happen by magic, it all got built. Enormously intricate infrastructure surrounds us, and makes life so incredibly easy compared to where we started, as naked apes in the woods. In many ways, we were already in science fiction novels when we were born.

But the world I live in today is deep science fiction, looking at it through 1980s eyes. Humans typically overestimate change in the short run, and underestimate it in the long run, and we're starting to get into the long-run part of the Internet. The initial bubble didn't really change that much, but the entire basis of society is now, ever so slowly, shifting into a new form.

What that form will eventually be, I don't know, but it has never existed in the world before.

More on point, perhaps: for me, August 6, 2012, was the demarcation point between the world I thought I knew, and the world I'm in now. I never read the book, but this sense of power and simultaneous vague disquiet might be what Alvin Toffler called "future shock".

Great article. However, at this point it's so last Thursday. Word on the "Internets", is that next weeks model article will be 40% faster bigger longer better.

WizKid wrote:

Great article. However, at this point it's so last Thursday. Word on the "Internets", is that next weeks model article will be 40% faster bigger longer better.

Seriously. There isn't even a picture of a cat doing something silly. How do you expect this to remain relevant with that degree of laziness?

Great read Sean as always....
remember everyone step back look at what are you doing every instant and think what your grandpa will see at what are you doing...

I'm in sync with Malor here. For better or worse, I'm possessed of an acute impression of how my past used to be, and the present is constantly and remarkably wondrous. I still catch myself marveling at my iPad and cell, and I know that while I could find out how they are built and work, the fact of the matter is for most intents and purposes, they might as well be magic items.

imbiginjapan wrote:

Oddly enough that link to the 19th century paintings has below it a link to an article about Domino's delivering pizza with a freaking unmanned drone. Now that, my friends, is progress.

I don't know. I mean, I've eaten Domino's pizza.

Strangeblades wrote:

Sorry I didn't read the article. I just wanted to write I love thinking about who approved that Ringo photo. Jeebus.

It was a great moment when we decided to use that as our image.

wordsmythe wrote:
imbiginjapan wrote:

Oddly enough that link to the 19th century paintings has below it a link to an article about Domino's delivering pizza with a freaking unmanned drone. Now that, my friends, is progress.

I don't know. I mean, I've eaten Domino's pizza.

You're from Chicago. Does Domino's even count as pizza?

tanstaafl wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
imbiginjapan wrote:

Oddly enough that link to the 19th century paintings has below it a link to an article about Domino's delivering pizza with a freaking unmanned drone. Now that, my friends, is progress.

I don't know. I mean, I've eaten Domino's pizza.

You're from Chicago. Does Domino's even count as pizza?

I've been known to make loud, inebriated proclamations to the contrary.

Hey, you don't need to be from Chicago to know Domino's isn't real pizza....

WipEout wrote:

Hey, you don't need to be from Chicago to know Domino's isn't real pizza....

But they upgraded the crust with, like, some MSG on it or something!

Most people defend themselves to me by noting that, on sale, it was cheaper and less work than a better-brand frozen pizza.

While I certainly don't marvel at the wonders of today's technologies on a day to day basis, I do take the occasional dip in the pool of frustration and depression when realising that I will only be alive to se such a ridiculously small fraction of the marvels of future scientific progression and invention.

Oddly, I most often pause in wonderment when my technology fails me.

It's only when I reflect on my frustration that my phone won't update Twitter when I realise I have a high quality camera, internet device, IM client, video viewer, book reader and music player in my hand and it weighs less than a slab of chocolate.

That's when I realise that the small failings are really small potatoes compared to the actual achievement of everything around me.