The future’s not what it used to be

According to Russell Davies the future isn’t what it used to be, even in sci-fi:

It’s hard to miss the missing future in science fiction. Zero History [William Gibson’s new novel] feels like it’s set in the past, actually last year… I went to see Mr Gibson talk last night and he said it might be true that his last three books were a pinhole portrait of the first decade of the 21st century. And it struck me that maybe all his books are that, he’s been approaching them from a long way in the past, imagining what they might be like. Now he’s in them, capturing portraits of the now. Soon he’ll be doing history.

I sometimes think all this talk of atemporality is an abdication of sci-fi responsibility. SF writers seem very keen to deny that they’re writing about the future. They’re not doing prediction, they’re telling us about the now. OK. Well. Pack it in and get on with some prediction.

And it’s not just sci-fi:

I’m also depressed about the lack of future in fashion. Every hep shop seems to be full of tweeds and leather and carefully authentic bits of restrained artisanal fashion. I think most of Shoreditch would be wondering around in a leather apron if it could. With pipe and beard and rickets. Every new coffee shop and organic foodery seems to be the same. Wood, brushed metal, bits of knackered toys on shelves. And blackboards. Everywhere there’s blackboards.

Cafes used to be models of the future. Shiny and modern and pushy. Fashion used to be the same – space age fabrics, bizarre concoctions. Trainers used to look like they’d been transported in from another dimension, now they look like they were found in an estate sale.

I could add a few more fields where there seems to be a ‘lack of future’. Here are a couple.

There’s so little new happening in the fine arts that they’re shamelessly dragooning other forms into service. One of the 2010 Turner Prize entries is a song and another includes a 13-part TV documentary series. These may well be very worthy pieces of art. But it’s not as if there’s not a lot of really good singing and TV going on already, with lots of juicy prizes too. Dedicated, professional people spend a lot of time creating what they already think of as art in these fields. I read that nominee Susan Phillipsz is a poor singer. We have those too.

The other two nominees are painters (well, one of them paints, the other paints and then turns it into sculpture). So, contemporary art, when it’s not cadging off its neighbours, is getting down from the attic all that old kit they decided they’d grown out of.

Then there’s pop music. Now Brit of this parish won’t have it that there’s any qualitative difference between today’s music, that of his youth, that of my youth, and so on back to the blessed eras of Nige and Malty. Now, (stepping carefully) I don’t want to get into that debate. But I do think that music’s relationship to popular culture has changed. There’s been no mass, bottom-up, self-inventing youth movement since Acid House. And I think I’m right in saying there have been no major new musical forms since then either. Culturally, it’s less exciting: there’s just a lot less genuine newness.

So what’s it all about? Take a look at this (from a post here). It neatly illustrates how the rate of technological progress has slowed in recent decades. As the author of the post remarks in the comments:

I remember when I was a boy, I imagined the year 2001 would see me in a hovercraft, watching people fly around jupiter, and talking to my sentient computer. Instead it’s the same as when I was a boy, except I got a TV looking thing in my house which allows me to write letters to people who live far away.

This may be pertinent to Russell’s point about the ‘missing future in sci-fi’: perhaps we exhaust our future-oriented imagination if the present isn’t changing fast enough?

Revolutionary technological change is the most important driver of change in how our lives are lived. It’s probably otiose to point out that, to take one area, that of transport, canals, railways, cars and jets have had totally transforming effects on society. It’s also obvious that technological change itself brings into being new cultural forms such as cinema, radio, TV. It’s therefore inevitable that a slowing in technological progress will result in things changing more slowly in other areas.

But doesn’t this argument sound totally counter-intuitive? We’re constantly bombarded with messages that we’re living in an era of revolutionary technological change. Indeed, when I put this argument to T., a broadcast journalist, she very reasonably asked, what about my office? It looks completely different now to what it did ten years ago, technology has transformed the job. But if we put a bit of perspective on things, the radio bits of her job didn’t even exist sixty years ago; the TV bits fifty years ago. What’s more, has the technological transformation of her working environment affected her life day-to-day? She still goes to the same building and does more or less the same hours, working with the same (but fewer) people.

And how has the audience’s experience changed? OK, it’s easier to record programmes and we can enjoy them on more devices. But this is a marginal increase in convenience compared to the invention of the whole broadcast medium. That really was a revolution that kicked off a whole lot of others (for starters, you can’t imagine The Beatles without TV).

It may be that we hear a lot about rapid technological progress because it’s mostly happening in an industry that’s full of people who are ideally placed to give it lots of publicity: the media. It’s also true that it’s affecting things that we tend to find interesting and exciting, things like books, sex, music, games, films, gossip and ideas.

Should we worry about this? After all, technological progress is a long-term driver of economic growth. Perhaps we’re heading for an era of economic stagnation? I’m not so sure. The world is a big and largely undeveloped place – technology has a long way to go to arrive at the leading edge in most parts of the world. Can we take a rain-check once all African countries have broadband, high-speed rail and nuclear weapons?

If technological progress is slowing it’s probably an unavoidable reversion towards a norm. During most of history mankind experienced very little, if any, technological progress. Most people didn’t assume the future would be radically different to the past. Apart, that is, from believing that the world was going to end – which may be another norm we’re reverting to.

Battersea Power Station photos from here.

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21 thoughts on “The future’s not what it used to be

    October 12, 2010 at 14:39

    ‘I remember when I was a boy’ said with croaky voice…
    Greige can become a little dull after a while – as opposed to the rose tinted view of a child. And economic stagnation – but they’ve got <a href=""Harajuku girls in Japan… Gaw, perhaps there’s some colour to look forward to… along new energy forms and revolutionary new medical advances. All we need are positive thoughts and actions – it’s up to us to make it happen.. But Battersea Power station does look curiously cool.

    October 12, 2010 at 15:47

    Lol. Isn’t so much of this just about growing up? The point at which the future becomes what life has made of us and that what we’d always thought of as the future, had perhaps desperately wanted to believe was the future, appears to be a rather tawdry smoke-and-mirrors number put up by the men from Silicon Valley and corporate marketing. Better to smell the coffee right now, then. Our understanding of the brain, for example, has hardly begun, let alone resolving brain versus mind if ever we can. We don’t even know which among the plethora of modern inventions really matters. Knock out the world’s electricity supply and we’d soon find out. There’s bags to be getting on with and, as you suggest, we also don’t know about the influence of unintended consequences, an invention in one culture that is adapted for different and more far-reaching consequences in others – like texting and sms.

    ian russell
    October 12, 2010 at 16:03

    you’ve given me a headache.

    When I saw the title I thought it was about the ending of the Time Machine. Rod Taylor moves his machine from the garden, about 20 feet back into his laboratory so he can return to the future and meet Weena again in the very same spot he first met her. That seems like a dumb prediction to me.

    Hey Skipper
    October 12, 2010 at 22:41

    The distinction is between the macro and micro.

    Back in the sci fi day, the assumption was that the trend line of moving mass would continue indefinitely, thereby overcoming the tyranny of distance.

    Would that be so.

    Cars got faster until they hit a practical limit, then after than only got more economical and comfortable. Same for trains, planes and ships.

    Similarly, it is increasingly likely that the Milky Way could be strewn with perpetually isolated islands of intelligent life, all, or nearly all, of whom will never know the rest exist: not only will we never be able to get there from here, average distances ensure we will never even know where there is.

    And I think I’m right in saying there have been no major new musical forms since then either.

    But there is far more variety within at least some forms. For example, Modest Mouse is considered rock, but at least some of their stuff is completely unlike anything else.

    October 13, 2010 at 00:00

    Apologies for my typos and unclosed link – I need to slow down to the pace of technological progress zzzzzzz

    Gadjo Dilo
    October 13, 2010 at 05:39

    And I think I’m right in saying there have been no major new musical forms since then either“. Come to Eastern Europe, guys! Here we have Kozak Rock, Hutsul Punk and Carpathian Ska! (OK, merely new hybrid musical forms, I admit.)

  7. Gaw
    October 13, 2010 at 07:39

    Susan, in the remote possibility I’m right, I’m sure there’ll still be lots of colour and fun and change. It will just all look more familiar in its forms than new things have over the last century.

    Mark, the future is one of the best marketing tools ever invented, I agree, and its claims are unlikely to be abandoned. Science has loads to do, it’s true, and I’m sure new inventions will continue to change our lives. But what I find impressive about the mid-19th to the mid-20th century is how profound an effect technological change had on human geography and daily life. I wonder if anything this radical will happen again, at least in the developed economies of the West. However, we await the Chinese Elvis.

    Ian, funnily enough I wrote it with a headache. Predicting the past – now that’s really tricky.

    Susan, but we rely on you to maintain your speed!

    Interesting point Gadjo, supporting what I was saying about progress going extensive. The possibilities are still practically endless if you factor in the transition of every developing country into an advanced state.

    October 13, 2010 at 08:49

    really interesting stuff Gareth, and I agree with you, the future got smaller. Everything is just a remix of something already existing. Even the much vaunted ipad is basically a toy. I have seen some cool military hardware videos lately though, with such groovy things as exoskeletons and military robots, which are at least pretty exciting and scary in a ‘terminator’ kind of way

    October 13, 2010 at 09:47

    The more sophisticated we become. the less sophisticated the future appears to be, here be apparent stagnation.

  10. Gaw
    October 13, 2010 at 09:57

    Worm: But we had that future ages ago – Iron Man from Marvel for one. I don’t know enough about the science to say how close we are to having this sort of thing on the battlefield or to pop down the shops in.

    Malty: Are we more sophisticated? Why should we think so? My grandfather could fix his car but I can’t (not even his, let alone mine).

  11. Brit
    October 13, 2010 at 10:27

    It’s quite shocking really that in 2010 we still drive petrol-fuelled, four-stroke internal combustion-engined motorcars. We have let our ancestors down a bit there…

  12. Gaw
    October 13, 2010 at 10:50

    Never mind the things we’ve given up on: manned-space exploration, nylon underwear, supersonic passenger flight, Space Dust. A list that’s surely soon to be joined by the Segway.

  13. Gaw
    October 13, 2010 at 10:58

    Sorry, Skipper, missed you there.

    I don’t know enough about science, technology and engineering to put forward my own ideas as to why things have slowed down. The comments on that Scott Locklin piece I linked to contain a fascinating discussion of potentially what has happened. I don’t feel they get to the nub of it though.

    This is unsurprising as, if the slowdown in technological progress is a reality, accounting for it will be one of the biggest and most controversial questions history has ever attempted to address. And just like there wasn’t a single explanation for why the Industrial Revolution came about there won’t be a single explanation for why it stopped.

    October 13, 2010 at 19:51

    Well, Gaw my maternal grandpa was so avant garde he engineered himself into a water filled trench whilst bad people attacked him with guns and sharp swords, a level of sophistication that I am unable to achieve.
    I do believe that your average pleb has today achieved a level of sophistication greater than that of fifty years ago, even the R.Moats of this world can string sentences together instead of just grunting.
    As for the inexorable march of technology, hasn’t really slowed, we are in an age of refining known technologies, an essential step and often the quickest way forward, before the onset of the new. Brit mentions internal combustion and rightly points out that in theory, the basics are the same. However, advances in fuel delivery and control systems have rendered the beast unrecognisable even for the designers of say thirty years ago.

    Sometimes a brand new technology is not as effective as the old, someone back in the fifties said lets have a supersonic passenger aircraft, laid down the parameters and pressed the button. Some other blokes said, there is no known material available, we’ll have to invent it, another bunch of people said there ain’t any machines that can work this material, we’ll have to invent them, years later and a zillion times over budget it flew, was so expensive they only made a handfull and then virtually give them away. Its military cousin, TSR2 suffered a similar fate and was cancelled.

    In the meantime the Jumbo rolled out of the hanger.

    Hey Skipper
    October 13, 2010 at 21:52


    I don’t know enough about science, technology and engineering to put forward my own ideas as to why things have slowed down.

    Thanks for pointing out the the Scott Locklin piece; I missed it first time around.

    I’ll take something about which I am reasonably expert for an example: aviation. Since the jet engine, the speed at which we travel by air has remained essentially unchanged. Depending upon the airliner, and what it was designed for, that speed varies from .77 to .88 Mach.

    The Boeing 707 did that in 1960, and the 787 will do that in 2011. So, in that regard, there has been no progress at all. Why?

    Because we ran into a wall. Go past .88 Mach, and the specific fuel consumption (pounds of fuel per pound-mile) starts increasingly significantly; past 1.0 Mach, it goes through the ceiling. That is why we will never do supersonic travel again. It didn’t make sense the first time, and everyone now knows not to do it again.

    Cocklin seems to have a “depends” definition of technological advance: it doesn’t count unless it has some game-changing consequence. So he includes the atom bomb which, Iranian efforts to get their own notwithstanding, is practically irrelevant today.

    At the same time, such a view excludes the first stage fan blade on a modern Rolls Royce engine, no part of which even existed 15 years ago, and causes B777s to get from A to B while burning 30% less fuel than aircraft of a generation before.

    Why isn’t greatly reducing energy consumption technological progress, but going faster is?

    Similar fundamental constraints face both space travel and deep sea exploration. IMHO, there will be no further substantial progress in those areas due to can’t, not won’t.

    I also can’t help but notice a week or so ago the Nobel Prize for Physics went to the discoverers of Graphene:

    Graphene is a form of carbon. As a material it is completely new – not only the thinnest ever but also the strongest. As a conductor of electricity it performs as well as copper. As a conductor of heat it outperforms all other known materials. It is almost completely transparent, yet so dense that not even helium, the smallest gas atom, can pass through it.

    Provided Graphene pans out (and every story I have read about it has failed to include any of the usual caveats), somehow I don’t think we have to worry about technological progress slowing down.

    Provided, of course, upon the definition. Routinely doing something today that was extremely difficult or impossible yesterday (anti-skid and predictive brake systems, air bags) should count as progress, even if we are still driving at 120 clicks.


    It’s quite shocking really that in 2010 we still drive petrol-fuelled, four-stroke internal combustion-engined motorcars. We have let our ancestors down a bit there…

    It is amazing that those poppet-valve heaps of engineering excrescences are still with us.

    The question is whether that is due to progress on their behalf, or failure to progress elsewhere.

  16. Gaw
    October 14, 2010 at 13:48

    Malty: I don’t think it’s our sophistication that’s stopped another major European war so much as a combination of exhaustion, our ancestors’ invention of nuclear weapons and US hegemony.

    Re progress it’s surely axiomatic that better but the same isn’t as revolutionary as different altogether. And my point is we haven’t had so much of the latter in recent decades.

    Skipper: Most strategic analysts would say the nuclear bomb is still one of the very most important factors in great power relations. Arguably it’s the major reason there hasn’t been a full-blown war between nuclear-armed powers. I’d say that’s a game-changer!

    Re your jet examples, my definition of revolutionary technological progress is that it should fundamentally alter the way we live. So the introduction of jet passenger transport changed fundamentally the way we do business, where we go on holiday, what we eat, the shape of our cities, patterns of migration, etc. Improving the fuel efficiency of jet transport is progress but it merely affects the scale of these things rather than whether they exist or not (and helps save the planet, of course).

    Graphene does sound very exciting indeed!

    Hey Skipper
    October 14, 2010 at 22:16

    Skipper: Most strategic analysts would say the nuclear bomb is still one of the very most important factors in great power relations. Arguably it’s the major reason there hasn’t been a full-blown war between nuclear-armed powers.

    Having spent some time involved with strategic analysis, I both agree and disagree.

    On the agree side, there is no doubt that nuclear weapons prevented a hot war between the US and either of the great communist powers. Clearly, not having to slog through something so destructive means nuclear weapons were important.

    However, the existence of nuclear weapons also distorted military structure (probably most in the US) in ways that proved wrong because nuclear weapons have absolutely no rational military utility. The moment communism joined the ash heap of history, nuclear weapons ceased to matter, which is hardly what one would expect for something that represented truly revolutionary technological change.

    If it wasn’t for Iran — whose pursuit, and potential use, of nuclear weapons is wholly irrational — people would be hard pressed to ignore nukes more. I don’t know of any element of international relations today (Iran notwithstanding) in which they play even a peripheral part.

    (What’s more, nuclear weapons are really the product of a mass industrial enterprise relying on particularly fiddly engineering solutions.)

    Re your jet examples, my definition of revolutionary technological progress is that it should fundamentally alter the way we live.

    Risking pedantry (a congenital problem, I’m afraid), this post and Locklin both left out the “revolutionary” qualifier: I think this particular article is also quite germane to this blog, as it’s about the disturbing slow down in the rate of technological progress we’ve experienced in my lifetime.

    But even sticking with revolutionary, the introduction of jet transport, in and of itself, does not get you to fundamental changes in business, holidays, diet, etc.

    Why? Because the only reason these things happen is because, per pound mile, jet travel has become at least 60% cheaper now than in 1968, despite fuel being at least 100% more expensive.*

    No one is going to ship geoducks from this side of the planet to the other, and blueberries from the other to this if transport costs were unchanged from the era of 707s.

    The other thing worth noting is that the jet engine is among the simplest mechanical devices on earth; in principal it consists of one moving part. The technology that allowed expressing that idea in reality has continued, at the very least, unabated since its invention.

    Which is why I find the notion that technological change has somehow slowed. The jet engine exists courtesy of technological improvements which continuously and rapidly change the existence of jet engines, yet somehow it is only the technological change preceding the first jet engine that matters.

    Apologies for the pedantry.

    *Guessing at the ratios in a constant value currency; the B777 uses 30% less fuel than the previous generation MD11, which used at least 30% less in turn than a 707. Brief searching suggests that transport costs are about a third in 2010 that they were in 1965.

    While poking around, I stumbled upon this from an MIT professor:

    The pace of technology development and the global diffusion of technologies are accelerating.

    Biological engineering, information technology, nano-technologies and other emerging technologies are advancing at exponential rates:

    • Exponential information processing, transport and storage
    • Exponential materials creation via DNA sequencing & synthesis
    • Linear transport of conventional materials

  18. Gaw
    October 15, 2010 at 07:52

    Here’s Thomas PM Barnett, whom I think is the leading geopolitical strategist at work today:

    The argument I make is that nuclear weapons, in coming into being and in their capacity to destroy the entire planet, basically end war among great powers. It’s taken us a long time to understand this; it defied our sense of understanding across the Cold War. There has been no war between two great powers since the Second World War and the invention of nukes. It took us a long time to even come to that understanding vis-á-vis the Soviets and the concept of “mutual assured destruction,” that nukes were for having, not for using.

    If you add that [understanding] to arguments that have been around for a long time, stretching all the way back to the earliest forms and periods of globalization around the beginning of the twentieth century, then you’re talking about, “Yes, there is such a growing economic connectivity between these great economies that if you add nukes on top of that, it rules out the concept of zero-sum war, meaning I can attack you and I can benefit from that, and you will lose.”

    (From an interview here:

    I’m afraid your quibble about the jet engine is pedantic. If a technology is going to have a wide and deep impact it must be widely adopted, which means it must be affordable. I’m not separating out improvements to the base technology – it’s necessarily a package. But the introduction of the technology to a significant market is the key development (without this it’s science rather than technology). We can see then that it’s going to be a game-changer, and the question becomes how big a game is this going to change?

    BTW I’m informed nano-technology isn’t a valid technology – but I suggest you take that debate up with Scott Locklin on his blog as I am only competent to convey the news!

    Hey Skipper
    October 15, 2010 at 18:16

    I agree with Barnett (BTW, the interview link is broken):

    The argument I make is that nuclear weapons, in coming into being and in their capacity to destroy the entire planet, basically end war among great powers. It’s taken us a long time to understand this; it defied our sense of understanding across the Cold War. is pretty much what I said.

    However, since the Cold War, nuclear weapons have become irrelevant, because even without them any war between the great powers would be massively negative sum, and all the parties know it.

    Which means what is cited as a huge technological achievement became, in 45 years, a wallflower.

    I’m afraid your quibble about the jet engine is pedantic.

    I can’t seem to avoid that risk.

    However, last week I was in a jet engine shop. Right next to each other were two engines, one of mid-sixties vintage from a 727, the other from a 777. The difference between the two, obvious even to casual inspection, is gob smacking.

    So, in the one area with which I have some expertise, the notion that technological change has somehow slowed requires missing what is in plain sight.

    Why? Because we have gotten so used to change that we don’t even notice it anymore, not because it isn’t there.

  20. Gaw
    October 16, 2010 at 07:31

    Don’t know why that link wasn’t working. Here’s the first page:

    If it still doesn’t work put ‘Thomas PM Barnett’ ‘Interview’ and ‘Berkeley’ into Google and you can find it that way.

    He doesn’t agree with you about the irrelevance of nuclear weapons (and nor do I) as the quotation above makes plain. We’re just about to replace our Trident nuclear submarines for about 20 billion: a lot for a ‘wallflower’.

    Re the planes, both of them would have got me to my holiday at one of the new concrete resorts on the Costa del Sol purpose-built for jet travellers. And not noticing technological change? It’s constantly celebrated and hyped!

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