Dabbler Diary: No Jet-Pack Required

I went to a couple of conferences last week, both, as it happens, on the future. One was concerned with retail and the consumer, the other on the web, technology and design.

Most speakers saw the future as consisting of a lot more of what’s new-ish today. So the internet would not just be on our screens but all over the place, mediating pretty much everything and to amazing effect (specifics were short).

However, I’m not so sure how many more amazing things we’re going to get in this area. We should remember our experience with jet packs and flying cars, or the lack of it.

When we were enjoying rapid and huge improvements in travel times – from trains, planes and automobiles – the future was, understandably, seen as more of the same. Technology was bound to enable us all to go even quicker, leading to excited imaginings about various personal flying machines. But what have been the recent big developments in personal travel? Ryanair and the revival of a nineteenth-century invention that doesn’t even have an engine, the bicycle.

So rather than going on to revolutionise everything, I suspect the web is just about done, and for quite a straightforward reason. We’ve had quite enough now, thank you.

***

So what might be the new, new thing? Taking a bike-inspired, retroprogressive view, I reckon we’ll soon rediscover the horse. I see a future London covered in a network of horse lanes, with a rose bush blooming on every street corner. Our increasingly redundant shop units will be converted into stables, and three-day eventing will be the new road-race cycling.

I’m only half-joking. The future always ends up being fairly implausible, a fact that I guess will come as a surprise to a great number of those in the future business.

***

At one of the conferences I heard a quote attributed to Bertrand Russell, ‘the logistician’. Probably a slip of the tongue. But the idea of Russell working at DHL applying himself to route planning and pallet optimisation is appealing. I’m sure he would have been an asset.

***

We love our nature writing here at The Dabbler, most recently demonstrated by Toby’s recent terrific post on Nan Shepherd. So when I saw this…

…(Barendina, when are you going to write for us again?) I naturally clicked through and found myself at Rory Stewart MP’s constituency blog. From his most recent Cumbrian yomp:

It once seemed as though industrialisation would replace the countryside, littering it with brick walls, concrete paths and people. In the 1930s George Orwell gazed horrified at the rotting detritus, the scars, and the smoke spreading across the North. But walking reveals that the last two hundred years has not filled but emptied much of the land. So, on this journey, my walking companions – farmers, and officers from Natural England and the Environment Agency; archaeologists, nuclear activists and painters; school-teachers and doctors; climbers and pensioners – joined me at villages. Between the villages I saw almost no-one. Walking alone, I could note the swathes of Yorkshire fog and cock’s foot grass, or the thick cropped form of an oak stubbornly wedged on an abandoned dyke. I could wonder whether this now marshy field had once been drained by the Romans, or by the monks of Abbeytown, by Mr.Curwen the Georgian improver, or by post-war subsidies; and question why the ragwort was flourishing or why the bracken was turning early. But there was rarely anyone to answer.

Read it all – it’s a thought-provoking perspective as much as anything. For my part, I think it helps justify relaxing planning laws in the countryside, a cause that’s close to my heart.

***

After reading a few of Stewart’s posts I found myself strangely dismayed: I couldn’t help finding his sensitivity to people, places and history incongruous in a member of what we’ve come to think of as our political class, where we might really wish it would find a home. But perhaps I’m being unfair on today’s MPs?

In any event, one feels sure some wider experiences outside politics are required to write like this and these are certainly in short supply (Stewart, on the other hand, is an army and FO man who spent a number of years – and wore out a lot of shoe leather – in Asia and the Middle East, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan).

Peering once again into the misty future, which I see is still crowded by lifelong political hacks, I predict Stewart will either go very far in politics, or, more likely, nowhere at all – or at least nowhere else. But then his constituents in Penrith and the Border are probably more than happy to keep him to themselves.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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9 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary: No Jet-Pack Required

  1. tobyash@hotmail.com'
    Toby
    September 14, 2012 at 13:39

    By sheer coincidence I found myself reading Rory Stewart’s blogs about his summer of walking in Cumbria this morning. They are excellent. He is an insightful, thoughtful writer. His book about his time in Iraq is quite brilliant. It captures the complexity and contradictions of the Arab world extremely well (whether or not one agrees with the US-led invasion). He also did very admirable work in Kabul setting up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation which is dedicated to restoring the city’s historical buildings. I think it’s a shame he has become an MP. Damn his naked ambition. As you say Brit, he could go all the way or nowhere at all. I believe his swift ascent into government was put on hold after he said in an interview that William Hague had asked him some “reasonably intelligent” questions about Afghanistan.

    • tobyash@hotmail.com'
      Toby
      September 14, 2012 at 13:42

      Sorry I meant Gaw not Brit!!

      • Gaw
        September 14, 2012 at 15:01

        I’m flattered by the mistake!

  2. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    September 14, 2012 at 16:47

    Gaw, did you by any chance see David Graeber ‘s essay in the Baffler a few months back, on the way in which our expectations of technological change have been so dramatically lowered over the last 40 or 50 years? It’s quite long but well worth a read.

    A secret question hovers over us, a sense of disappointment, a broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like … Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? …

    Even in the seventies and eighties … sober sources such as National Geographic and the Smithsonian were informing children of imminent space stations and expeditions to Mars … Stanley Kubrick felt that a moviegoing audience would find it perfectly natural to assume that only thirty-three years later, in 2001, we would have commercial moon flights, city-like space stations, and computers with human personalities maintaining astronauts in suspended animation while traveling to Jupiter. Video telephony is just about the only new technology from that particular movie that has appeared …

    For Graeber, the Internet and information technology generally are a pretty sorry compensation for the lack of antigravity sleds:

    The Internet is a remarkable innovation, but all we are talking about is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office, and mail-order catalogue. Had the Internet been described to a science fiction aficionado in the fifties and sixties and touted as the most dramatic technological achievement since his time, his reaction would have been disappointment. Fifty years and this is the best our scientists managed to come up with? We expected computers that would think!

    • Gaw
      September 16, 2012 at 22:18

      Thanks Jonathan. I enjoyed the piece, though I could have done without the Marxist analysis. Interesting how it ended with a semantic discussion of ‘capitalism’, which, for me, underlined how useless it is as an explanatory concept. Didn’t deter him though – people love thinking in systems.

      BTW we looked at the future in our own more modest way a couple of years ago:

      http://thedabbler.co.uk/2010/10/the-futures-not-what-it-was/

  3. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    Worm
    September 14, 2012 at 18:15

    A truly excellent read as I sit here sandwiched like a sardine on Worst Great Western!

    A very up to date example of your ‘future disappointmenti’ musings Gaw, can be seen in the current underwhelmed response to the new iPhone 5 – there’s a palpable sense of disappointment that it seems to be a marginally improved version of the last one. We’ve become so used to being surprised by technological leaps that when a decent upgrade comes along people are let down. It’s almost as if people were expecting it to be able to transform or be made of mercury and death lasers

    • Gaw
      September 16, 2012 at 22:19

      I think Android has a death laser app.

  4. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    September 16, 2012 at 17:37

    Yes, the idea of internet-enabled fridges just doesn’t float my boat. As for phones, I’m not sure about augmented reality apps either. I’ve tried Wikitude and it doesn’t really work; the best are the star map ones, but mostly for novelty value. What would really excite me in phone technology is a battery that lasts more than a day.

    • Gaw
      September 16, 2012 at 22:25

      Apparently batteries haven’t improved so much – it’s the power drain from the technology that’s got better, meaning you can do more with the same (though obviously not nearly enough). If that’s true, I guess it means the battery is one of the reasons the future hasn’t delivered quite as much as expected.

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