We often hear the refrain from technophiles the world over: “It’s past the year 2000! Where’s my flying car?” By this, people seem to indicate that they feel we are living in an age of technological stagnation. In many ways this is true. Nothing in our history will ever equal the incredible rush of technology that accompanied the period from 1939-1945, where technology leaped literally overnight from stick-and-string biplanes into the near-supersonic jet age. People seemed to expect technology to continue its rapid ascent, but it is not true that technology has stopped. It just rises in different ways.
Throughout the 50s and 60s the spin-offs from WW2 continued onwards in a dizzying climb of advancements: The transistor, supersonic flight, space travel, computers for commercial use. All these things quickly became the norm. In a way, this was also a ‘golden age’. When we look back upon the great accomplishments of our era such as supersonic passenger aircraft, we must also remember that the Concorde and TU-144, these aircraft that still look elegant and futuristic today, were a product of the 60s. Mankind went from Gagarin’s orbit of the earth to Armstrong’s landing on the moon in just over a decade. Militarily, the Korean and Vietnam wars pushed designs for aircraft and vehicles through at a very rapid pace, each one out-performing the next. The Space Shuttle was a technological trophy for the USA, a product of the Nixon and Carter administrations. Most of the readers here hadn’t even been a glint in the milkman’s eye at that time. Heck, we still had milkmen then, too.
Milkmen back then were hardcore.
These days, things have slowed, or show the appearance of having slowed. Military technology takes decades to get going. The Eurofighter Typhoon has now emerged from its painful development process that has taken around 20 years or so. The F-22 is barely reaching squadron service after what seems like an eternity, and the F-35 looks like it will also have a protracted birth. (Sorry for the continual aviation references, but a good way to view the advancements in a country’s technology is to see what the military is doing in their most technologically sophisticated department). The Space Shuttle has shown its true colours as an unsafe, unreliable, overweight and expensive death trap/white elephant, and there seems to be no improving on the silicon chip that started the computer boom.
Or is there?
It’s true that we lack flying cars here in the future. That dream died a long time ago, sometime in the 60s to be honest, with increasing weight of vehicles and a little thing known as ‘safety’. The passengers of vehicles today are able to survive impacts and accidents that would have all but obliterated the occupants thirty years ago, at speeds that were unbelievable to those driving sixty years ago. Moller Skycar is giving it a good go to make a flying car, but it still is wrestling with the concept of thousands of driver/pilots lurching around the sky and attempting VTOL in their driveways. Seriously, we can’t even tell people not to text and drive. Can you imagine the crazy distracted drivers on your daily commute if they were also travelling in three dimensions rather than two? I’ll take my chances here on the ground, thanks. Besides, the Moller Skycar looks mostly like some sort of novelty sex toy, and I really wouldn’t feel comfortable driving around in one.
It even vibrates.
So what DO we have here in the future that makes things so awesome?
Well, let me put it this way. I shall start with getting up in the morning. As I rise, I hear the sound of the garbage truck outside. The local garbage man no longer has a couple of apes running alongside, throwing garbage into the truck. No. These days he picks up garbage from the sidewalk using a GIANT ROBOT ARM that has the lifting and crushing strength of a dozen men. Seriously, he’s one step away from being a mechanised superhero/supervillain. If I were asked as a kid what I wanted to be after the year 2000, I’m sure that robots would have been involved in a large part of it. Garbage men totally made it to the future first, there. Forget Iron Man. These guys have a powerful robot TRUCK. I’m not sure how we find something so awesome to be so mundane.
Supervillainy at 5am
I then would take a call on my phone. Except this device, this tiny block of plastic and glass that I keep in my pocket, is more than just a cordless telephone. With a single device I can:
- Make a call to anywhere in the world from pretty much anywhere in the country (and most places in the world).
- Listen to one of a thousand pieces of music I have stored in its vast memory.
- Take photographs of anything I like, with good definition and store that, and thousands more, in its memory.
- Play a variety of highly advanced video games.
- Read, at the touch of a button, the sum total knowledge of the human race in the form of the internet.
- Navigate to places unknown using a communication system linking with up to six satellites simultaneously.
Now just think about that. Think of what your grandparents or great-grandparents would have thought of such technology. To them, it’s almost magic. Transport such a device to the pre-WW2-era and it would be inconceivable that it could exist. Even twenty years ago, this device would be at least six (much larger) devices, most of which I would need to plug in somewhere to use (or that used things such as 35mm film).
Not true! This is portable! See? It has handles!
More than that, the processing power in my telephone is absolutely mind-blowing. When the film ‘the last starfighter’ was made in 1984 (the same year that Transformers came out), the CGI in the film was created using the most advanced supercomputer of the time, a Cray X-MP. This was the sort of computer you needed to have housed in a building and it ground out every polygon and detail of the rather-blocky-looking CG in hours and hours of processing. Now realise that your phone, your iPhone or Android, has more processing power in that tiny handheld device than the entire Cray X-MP. That’s advancement, kids. That’s the future, and it’s awesome.
For a product of it’s time, it’s still pretty cool today.
The future keeps on happening, though. I am considering purchasing a 3D printer. They are becoming cheap enough so that everyone can get one sooner or later. Remember laser printers when they used to be enormous, required enough power to run a 3rd world African nation, and cost about as much as the same nation’s annual defence budget? Now we throw away our laser printers when the toner cartridge runs out because it’s cheaper to buy a new one.
Well, maybe not for too much longer. With the rise of the 3d printer we finally take a step to the Star Trek universe’s replicator. With the right sort of plastics (ie: ones that handle high temperatures and stress), we can build anything… ANYTHING. Such a device will allow us to create tools and spare parts for our vehicles or personal use. We can create toys and games, plates and cutlery, storage boxes for the fridge, cases for your iPhone or computer, lenses and frames for your glasses, plastic bibs and pacifiers for your baby, firearms… the possibilities are limitless. Should electro-conductive plastics be used, you could even begin to create radios, computers, phones, light fittings, speakers, even more 3D printers as the cornucopia machine creates more of itself.
Now these things are all possible right now. Imagine if you will, the next step where all these things that are created may be broken back down into the original plastic they are made from. Our social paradigm would be forever changed. We could create or destroy anything we wanted, simply by using the printer. Physical ownership of things would become almost irrelevant as the ownership of the information on how to build things became the new possession. All you need is a 3d printer, information, mass and energy. Lose something? Build another. Break something? Recycle it and build another. Want to move house/country? Sure, no problems. Break everything you own down, then once you arrive at your new destination you can rebuild anything you like. Houses, cars, dwellings and rooms would change as quickly and easily as dreams themselves. Environmentally this would be actually better as the ownership of mass would be what is important. People would not throw out things, because all things can be recycled. This would reduce household waste to a trickle. We would only have what we needed (or wanted) at the time, and if we didn’t need/want it anymore then we can turn it into something else. What if your baby’s rattle would, after several cycles of recycling, compose his bib, his first toys, parts of his first car, the casing on the computer on which he writes his university thesis, the suit he is married in, and the rattle of his first child?
With advancements in technology this could even extend to clothes. Right now most of my warm fleece jumpers are made from recycled plastic bottles, so it would not be a large stretch to be able to produce clothes and fashions from your printer.
I would see new industries rising, along with a cottage industry of information, ‘how to’ for your printers, disseminated across the globe by the internet.
This is the future. We’re living it now. Isn’t it wonderful?