Please Stand By: The Future Will Be Here Any Minute.

Posted on October 14, 2010


People tell you to live in the moment. I’ve tried, but it goes by so fast and I’m not a quick thinker. By the time I decide what to do with the moment, it’s usually too late. A hummingbird lives in the moment. For me the past and the future are much more useful, just because they hang around longer.

The past is good for learning things. When I was seven, I jumped from my second-floor bedroom window into our backyard. This turned out to be an instructive experience, thanks largely to the fact that our backyard was made of concrete and I couldn’t walk for a week and a half. That gave me plenty of time to reflect. The past is also where all of my happy memories are. When I spotted the planet Saturn through the eyepiece of my three-inch telescope, I felt like Galileo. I was struck speechless by the sight of Niagara Falls, and by my first glimpse of the infield grass at Yankee Stadium. I remember when our cat disappeared for four days, and the precise moment when she came home. I can bring back the emotions those events evoked, and feel them again any time I want. This isn’t living in the past; it’s reliving it, like watching a favorite movie or eating leftover lasagna.

When I was much younger, though, I didn’t have much of a past, so I became interested in the future. It was endless and unknowable. We would recognize the future when we got there, but I didn’t grasp the idea that we could affect the future, and even cause it. I read comic books and watched television as though they were infallible authorities on life; they sometimes showed me what the future would be like. In 1964 my parents took me to the New York World’s Fair in Queens. The fair was mostly about technology, how it had already changed the world, and where it was all headed. This vision of the future seemed to match that of the comic books and television shows. Supersonic trains would transport us from place to place. Enormous skyscrapers would house entire cities, while the ocean would become home for millions of people living in floating towns. We would zip around in flying vehicles and park them in hovering carports. Or we’d simply take off, powered by personal jet packs. Conveyor belts in the sidewalks would help us move along the ground. Diseased organs would be easily repaired or replaced using off-the-shelf mechanical parts. Robots would handle the chores of daily life, creating more opportunity for us to expand our knowledge (and causing us to grow larger heads to accommodate our bigger brains).

I never doubted it would all happen. I mean, there were people in charge of these things. If they said we’d have robots and jet packs, then the only thing left to do was send for the catalog so we could choose the model and color we wanted. I couldn’t wait.

Decades have now passed. Many of the predicted changes should have happened already, but we seem to be running behind schedule. Yet I still find myself looking to the future — although a much more distant one — and questioning. Seated at our kitchen table, I look around and wonder, what will be right here a thousand years from now? Right here. This house will be long gone, but surely something will occupy its place. Maybe the spot where I’m sitting will be in the lobby of a four-hundred-story building. Maybe the space my head now occupies will be inside a nuclear reactor, or some machine my mind can’t even conceive. Or maybe this whole area will be underwater, or underground. Or maybe something terrible will have happened and people will be back to chasing after their food with pointy sticks. All of those things are possible, given enough time. With so many options, which path will we follow? How will we get from here to there, and what will there be like?

The problem, of course, is that we don’t leap into the future. We slip into it, one moment at a time. And as I’ve already concluded, not much happens in a moment. Sure, new technology shows up, and we’re amazed for a while. But then it becomes part of our world, with subsequent developments limited to making the thing smaller, giving it more gigabytes, and offering a carrying case in designer colors. That’s how progress happens: great lurches, followed by long periods of refinement. The car appeared around the turn of the twentieth century. It had four wheels, an engine, and a transmission. That’s pretty much what we have now, although modern cars are faster and more comfortable. And we also have cup holders.

In just twenty-four years of aviation, we went from celebrating a twelve-second hop at Kitty Hawk to ticker-tape parades for the first trans-Atlantic flight. Four decades later, we were sending astronauts to the Moon and back. But then what? No one has left Earth orbit since 1972. We were supposed to be sipping cappuccino on Mars by now.

We seem to have made great strides in communications, but have we? For hundreds of years, people had to rely on horses and sailboats to deliver hand-written letters, so they were meticulous about how they used words to express themselves. The telegraph was invented in the mid-1800s, and within eighty years wireless communication was possible across great distances. Today, we can talk to almost anyone from almost anywhere. We can send emails and text messages while we’re getting our hair cut. But the speed at which signals travel reached its upper limit a long time ago. And many of us can no longer compose a coherent sentence. Television has been around since the 1920s. We’ve gone from Theodore Cleaver and Opie Taylor to Bart Simpson and Gossip Girl, but is that a stride forward? Are there any real strides left?

And what is progress all about, anyway? It doesn’t seem to have much to do with people themselves. We can read the plays of the ancient Greeks and recognize our own strengths and flaws in their characters. People have always felt happiness, fear, love, jealousy, anger, and the whole range of emotions we feel today. They’ve always needed air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and shelter from the elements. There is no reason to think any of that will change in the next thousand years.

Will we look different? Probably. Just glance at one of those placemats with pictures of the presidents on it. Right around Woodrow Wilson, the faces started to change. The most recent presidents seem out of place, as though they don’t even belong with the others. So I think people will look different within just a century. By the time a millennium has passed, we may look dramatically different. (Although some of those early presidents make me think our heads may be getting smaller.)

John Quincy Adams (left) ran for president in 1824, while Martin Van Buren was a vice presidential candidate. Their slogan was, "We're smarter than those other guys. Look how big our heads are."

We’ll always need to communicate and travel to distant places, and will continue to fine-tune our methods for doing so. Smarter phones and faster computers? Of course. A tunnel under the ocean? Maybe. But the basic ideas — linking minds and transporting bodies — must work within the constraints of physical laws. Turning people into clouds of particles that can then be transmitted at the speed of light and reassembled at the other end? I guess I’m in no position to say it’s impossible. But where are the supersonic trains? The jet packs? The floating cities?

On the other hand, I’ve seen how much trouble people have maneuvering shopping carts without crashing into each other. Will those same people someday exit the grocery store and hop into their flying cars? Could I leave the house, get all the way to the Bone Marrow Boutique, and realize I forgot my bio-med chip on the four-hundredth floor? Will I have to teach the robot how to iron a shirt?

Such a future would tempt me to jump out the window again. In that case I might appreciate the moving sidewalks, but still, I’m glad to be sitting at our kitchen table in 2010, eating leftover lasagna and remembering our trip to Niagara Falls. The future will be here soon enough. And really, I can wait.