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.