10 June 2007

Future's Anticlimax: Building-up to the Fizzle

I appreciate the effort...

...But I expected more.

The year was 1976. Jimmy Carter was running for the presidency, Gerald Ford was doing the best he could to manage the crumblings and fallout from Nixon. Viet-nam had officially ended and we'd been told, by some in the world, that we'd lost. It was America's bicentennial, Steve Austin and Jaime Summers were still dazzling kids every weekend on television. You could still buy records from an outfit called K-Tel. Disco hadn't quite burned white hot yet. Skylab hadn't been circling the globe very long, and in Junior High we were being shown "film strips" featuring images like this:

1961 Chrysler Turboflight
1961 Chrysler Turboflite image from the Chrysler Design Institute

The cars in these types of images were called "The Car of the Future." They were talked about with the highest of reverence. I still don't know what these concept cars were supposed to do that today's models don't. They were all bubbly and outer-spacey looking, and appear to have reached their climax in the AMC Pacer.

We'd already been watching George Jetson with his flying vehicle/briefcase. We'd seen reruns of 1950s Sci Fi with rubber suited aliens and rockets that made noise and had smoke and fires burning in space. Computers weren't the desktop towers, pizza boxes and laptops that we have today. They were all upright, constantly bleeping, refrigerator-looking with moving tapes or they were washing machine shaped mostly-rectangular blobs with lights flashing and incessant snorts and chirps. There was something being whispered about called the microprocessor, but at that time it took hundreds of colored wires and many lines of code to play a six-note tune out of a two-inch speaker.

Over the years, all that stuff, coupled with Star Trek, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind built up an anticipation of the future, most of which we're still awaiting.

Fast forward 30 years and the best we can produce, the desktops, laptops, handhelds, WIFI, the Space Shuttle, space probes, and many other things are still ape-ish rough drafts of the stuff and gadgets we see in movies and television shows. If we compare the our touchscreen technology to Klaatu's communication terminal in The Day the Earth Stood Still, our cellphones and smartphones, and even GPS to tricorders and Captain Kirk's communicator, Tasers to Phasers and Blasters, and JPL's ion engine powering Deep Space 1 to Warp Drive...they're sketches, not the painting.

Fortunately, the artists aren't done yet.

The fantasy is always more exciting than the reality, and the reality always seems to have to drag money and politics in its crep towards the fantasy.

We put a man on the moon. That had been a dream long before the space race and long before JFK spoke the words that got that project fully in motion.

It was a political decision. A political decision moved us forward. Political decisions continue to hold us back.

We put a man on the moon when we did, in part because we were afraid the Russians, who made it into space ahead of us, were going to get there first. We were unable to see then and I doubt that the check writers are able to see now that it doesn't have to be a race. Maybe this is cynicism talking, but I hope it doesn't take a perceived threat of the Chinese getting to Mars first to shake out the cobwebs in the heads of the people who keep cutting funding to these projects. But whomever makes it there first, please bring back our robots. They are there waiting to greet you.

With regards to space exploration and many other things, the fact of any one nation making the discovery is overshadowed by the understanding that the accomplishment belongs to humankind.

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