JF Ptak Science Books Post 1151 [Part of our History of the Future series]
The History of the Speed of Things is an interesting category for a history of odd things: the speed of exploration, of curing someone with a gallbladder problem, of flashing across the White Sands desert in a rocket car, of the pulse of a human neuron, of the time it takes to go from 10 microns to 1000000 microns, of how long it takes to get to Tybee Island from Asheville North Carolina, of insurance information to tall ships coming over the horizon, of gravity, of light, of computing a billion place of pi, of calculating where to aim your anti aircraft guns at the incoming Luftwaffe, of diving to the greatest depth in a submarine, of running 100 metres, of a drop of mercury falling 1/1000 of an inch, of the speed of nightfall on the Moon, and so forth.
The Speed of Things’ subcategory is the History of Speed of Knowing Things, with its interesting and proportional subcategory of the The History of the Speed of Forgetting Things, both of which are associated with the point of today’s post, which was the sneak-peak of the future offered in a series of ads in Life magazine in 1953. The full-page ads were formatted by Sparton Television Company to grab the attention of even the laziest semi-monied reader of the magazine, selling the promise of entertainment at home. The cost for admission for this product was fairly luxurious and a little extreme once you translate the $400 entrance fee into its percentage of the average monthly salary (which was about equal) or of a new (general) Ford (about 25%) or of the average monthly rent (125%). The television as something to be reckoned with.
There’s something more to the ads that the designers and readers couldn’t have known at the time, though. In the ads, the tvs are shown replacing the action that it is supposed to be transmitting–it has become the thing itself, a passive replacement to an action. Rather than watch a baseball player at bat swinging at a pitch, we see a television with a batter in it, moving just as the pitcher is moving,. The barcolounger in the ring of the prizefight is presented with the fight on a tv in the opposite corner, and the football players have been replaced by a black-and-white image on a television tube on a field of green.
The message then of course was that television was putting you into the scene, that the viewer was part of the action and not just a casual observer. I guess. Sitting here in 2010 though the ads seem to play to a greater truth, and might be more prescient for the coming future than the original advertisers could’ve possibly imagined. All throughout the history of communication, I am certain that there was a percentage of the population that viewed the newest invention as not necessary and an affront to privacy and free time, of more deeply removing a person from the act of communicating–the semaphore, telegraph, telephone, wireless, airmail, overseas calls, email, bluetooth, twitter, and so on all presented this similar problem. Just as these improvements were adding to the flow of information, they were also isolating the recipient from the sender. The more access to info and data, the more it was accessed; the more access, the more time spent accessing; the more time spent accessing, the more time theoretically spent responding. And so on ‘tll you get to the so-called modern time, when there is data presented to us all of the time, inescapable info flows, gargantuan landslides of numbers and images and words and fluff, available at all times, and almost at all places. The technology making it possible for people to more freely communicate is, in a way, replacing the person, allowing communication nodes to have a human interface connecting them.
Now this might be a little extreme, at least for the present. I’ve little doubt that some people feel as though they are simply connecting word threads to other word threads and passing it along, seeming as though the are piecing together the floating bits in an enormous flood of floating bits. As my wife Patti Digh quotes the Buddha in her book Life is a Verb, “What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What's the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?”
I’m guessing that people would be uploading pictures of themselves googling the question, or receiving an image of someone in front of them, waving to them, as they are swept along in the flood waters.
These pictures from Life tell the coming story, and I think can remind us that as foreign as they might seem then, and as uncomfortably true that they might seem to some now, that they could very well seem painfully/obviously true at some near point in the future. The computer for all intents and purposes is only 65 years old; home computing is three decades old; the internet, two. The changes brought on by all of this were almost invisible 25 years ago. The coming of the future in regards to communication, even a future that is only 25 years from now, may very well wind up being as difficult to see from 2010 as it was to see our year in 1985.
I wonder if in the future we’ll have to pay for silence, pay to be relieved of data, pay for relief from advertisements from a flood of products and services that we don’t ad will never actually “need”, pay for time for the silence to actually think? When people are smoking and talking on a cell while riding a bike or texting while plasticizing their dog’s environmental offerings, when is it exactly that there will be quiet moments for extended thinking? Where will our consumption of information be in 25 years from now, or 50? It is only too bad that the process of consuming info didn’t lead to some sort of generation of energy, like tidal power, because at least then there would be one certain positive outcome of data access.
And I know that accessing things will be much smarter even in the near-future than it is now, Google searches will look as quaint four-digit phone numbers. But still there is the data, and at that point the data will be more pertinent, which means there will be more of it to spend more time on. Its a Catch-22--we'll waste less time, probably, on what we weren't looking for, which means we'll have more time to look at more things that we were looking for, except that there will be too much of it, and there won't be enough time to read all of that, let alone to give it some thought.
In all of this, the thing that might take more time to deal with than actual thinking might be the process of forgetting. Perhaps in the deeper future we'll just be born with all of this information, or have instant access to it, and then in that future where there is no forgetting we'll just have to imagine that we're imagining quiet time.