What gives me a real “future buzz” are the things that haven’t been science fiction tropes for decades. Like electric cigarettes. The whole idea weirds me out. And if someone had told me in the 2000 that my friends would be smoking electronic cigarettes in 2012, I’d have told them they were full of it. At first I only saw them advertised on torrent trackers and the like, advertised along with penis enlargement pills and services that would connect me with “adult friends.” I thought electronic cigarettes were just a scam. But now I regularly see people I know smoking them.
Electric cigarettes seem like a true novelty. More so than quantum teleportation or iPhones or the Large Hadron Collider, electronic cigarettes make me feel like I’m living in the future.
The thing is electronic cigarettes are actually pretty low tech. According to sources cited by Wikipedia, the first electronic cigarette was invented back in the 60s but never commercialized. I can imagine them showing up in ads in the back of comic books, along side x-ray specs, the 60s equivalent of advertising on torrent sites. It apparently took until 2000 for someone else to take the idea seriously. Realistically the 60s version would probably have been much larger, and I’m not sure the components would have been cheap enough in the 60s to make it economical and you wouldn’t be able to charge it over USB. But we’re just talking about freebasing drugs here, not quantum teleportation.
For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.
Bruce Sterling described it as sort of an antidote to atemporality.
Matt “Black Belt” Jones wrote this in response, proposing “sensor vernacular” as the new future vibe:
I guess – like NASA imagery – it doesn’t acquire that whiff-of-nostalgia-for-a-lost-future if you don’t remember it from the first time round. For a while, anyway. […]
There’s both a nowness and nextness to Sensor-Vernacular.
I think my attraction to it – what ever it is – is that these signals are hints that the hangover of 10 years of ‘war-on-terror’ funding into defense and surveillance technology (where after all the advances in computer vision and relative-cheapness of devices like the Kinect came from) might get turned into an exuberant party.
I like Bridle’s stuff, but it’s hard for me to feel like it’s a truly new aesthetic. The fashion bits look like electro revival scene style from the 00s that continue to be popular today, which is itself a revival of 80s electro, hip-hop and synthpop. And 8-bit already got a revival in the 90s and 00s, and of course that was all 80s nostalgia. Glitch still felt vital in the early 00s, but it’s by now passe (and it was all probably predated by Amiga stuff anyway). A lot of this stuff Bridle is rounding up still feels like retrofuturism rather than something new. We’ve had steampunk and dieselpunk and atompunk, so now it’s pixelpunk. We’re about to hit full circle and have retro-cyberpunk complete with VR headsets and Power Gloves.
And as to sensor vernacular, does that feel like “the Future”? Not to me. This machine vision stuff has been coming to us for a long time, with Terminator, Predator, Until the End of the World, etc. We’ve seen visions of the future where computers triggered by sensors, voice driven computers, unmanned aircraft for decades now. So now we’re seeing augmented reality, we’re seeing Kinect, we’re seeing Geoloqi and the Internet of Things, and yes it all feels very “now” but it doesn’t feel that much like the future because it’s just taking too long for technology to catch up to our imaginations. Kinect and Siri just aren’t Kit or HAL.
In 2010 William Gibson wrote about “future fatigue,” a symptom or perhaps cause of the atemporality that Bridle decries:
Say it’s midway through the final year of the first decade of the 21st Century. Say that, last week, two things happened: scientists in China announced successful quantum teleportation over a distance of ten miles, while other scientists, in Maryland, announced the creation of an artificial, self-replicating genome. In this particular version of the 21st Century, which happens to be the one you’re living in, neither of these stories attracted a very great deal of attention.
In quantum teleportation, no matter is transferred, but information may be conveyed across a distance, without resorting to a signal in any traditional sense. Still, it’s the word “teleportation”, used seriously, in a headline. My “no kidding” module was activated: “No kidding,” I said to myself, “teleportation.” A slight amazement. […]
Alvin Toffler warned us about Future Shock, but is this Future Fatigue? For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.
While Gibsons’s Neuromancer is mostly remembered for cyberspace and virtual reality and artificial intelligence, there’s a lot more going on in that particular future setting. Just about everything that was “the future” during Gibson’s life time up to the point that the Sprawl Trilogy books were written: neurotechnology, nanotechnology, space travel, life extension, cryogenics, biological computers and all sorts of other weird biotech. There are even geodesic domes and arcologies.
Where do you really go from there? The transhumanist and singularitian authors like Vernor Vinge, Ken McLeod and Charlie Stross try to take it further, but although their novels may be better and more scientifically accurate do they really have a vision of the future more advanced than Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov? And besides, even the extropian/singularian strain has actually been around at least as long as the cyberpunk strain.
The Headmap Manifesto was such a buzz when I first read it in 2003 (I can only imagine what it was like to read it in 1999). It didn’t so much predict new technologies – mobile phones, GPS and handheld computers all existed at the time – but rather new uses for existing technologies. I already had a smart phone when I read but it still seemed exciting. Minority Report didn’t predict any future technology that you couldn’t have read about long before the movie was released 10 years ago, but it captured many people imaginations because so much of it seemed to be right around the corner. But now as these things arrive – location aware applications, the Kinect – instead of being amazed we say “oh, it’s about time.” A friend of mine just bought a 3D printer, which is really cool but it’s yet another “it’s about time” rather than a future shock.
What comes next, other than iterative improvements to what we already have? Vat grown meat and organs for transplanting? When your first relative gets a vat grown heart transplant, will you think “that’s amazing” or “thank God they figured out how to do that in time?”