* I originally wrote this the day before my birthday, about six weeks ago.
April 8, 2011. I'm fifty-three, turning fifty-four in another day on April 9th. This letter is to be read thirty years from now, when I turn 84.
If I am not here to read it, then whoever does read it can do whatever they want with it, include lining a catbox. Do you still line catboxes with paper in 2041?
I am writing this long, rambling letter to myself for one reason that's a little hard to articulate. Thirty years ago , in 1981, I was only dimly aware that history unfolded around me. I was a twenty-something social activist on welfare, living in the moment. It prevented me from showing much interest in the world and current events. And even now, I only remember the emotions associated with my young life, not what the world was really like then. Because to us things change slowly, and only seem to move quick in retrospect, the world of 1981 seems very much like the world of today.
But 1981 wasn't the same at all. The IBM PC was just announced, another personal computer for tech-heads like the Apple II or TRS-80. There was no Web, no cellphones, no spreadsheets that the home user could run "what-if" scenarios with. There was no Starbucks, no iPod, the walkman was to be invented in a year or so. There was still a cold war, still a Berlin wall, and people had pensions and read the newspaper in the evening. And I think they still watched Harry Reasoner then.
For me in 1981, writing something involved typing, hoping I hadn't produced invisiprint and that I didn't make too many typos because I had no way of fixing them. I was ignorant of the possibilities of word processing. Four years later, I'd write a screen access program, but in 1981, I didn't even know what programming a computer involved. I was bumming around Berkeley, going nowhere slowly at the start of that decade.
So basically, drifting through life ignorant and unconcerned, when I kept a diary I logged my emotions and the daily events that meant something to me.
Thinking back today, I realized how much history I lived through that I could have paid attention to and didn't. So the purpose of this is to capture what today is like, in ways that I will not remember later.
For example, in the 20th century history class we just finished, we discussed the Vietnam war. I lived through it as a child, but my memories of news reports, with clattering teletypes in the background only recall lists of figures, how many servicemen and how many Viet Kong killed that day. I never thought to pull out one of the cassette recorders I'd owned as a kid to capture one of those newscasts. I never thought to write down anything about the war that struck me as intriguing, because I had no interest.
I remember watching the Apollo Moon landing at Age eleven at the house of a family friend, and the wonderful descriptions provided by the friend's father, sitting on that hot stifling July in his garage. Even at eleven I knew it was significant, but I wished today I'd remember some of the less famous utterances from the astronauts and the newscasters.
The details I do remember are of no significance. The 11-year-old friend was named Lillian and we ran around the yard before that, pretending to be horses. Her last name was Black. Her teenaged brother was Rus, and her mom had been a P.E. teacher at some Saturday program I attended. I remember the father fighting with Rus about whether he could have a beer. I remember how all the other family members went inside, because only that man and I were interested in the moon landing. I can't even remember his name, and yet he spent the afternoon entertaining a visiting blind child with lively descriptions of the event. I remember only one thing from his descriptions; the dust rising as the astronauts jumped about on the moon.
Later, during high school and Watergate, I heard the shaming of Nixon as background noise; I paid so little attention.
As another example, thirty-five years ago, I lived in Germany as an exchange student. For the Germans it was thirty years after Hitler. But people were slippery about the subject, and didn't want to recall much about the second world war. I tried to politely ask but I got rebuffed. As a young person it was a bad idea to push for answers. But even then, I was dimly aware that people around me had lived through a landmark historical event, and weren't speaking of it, and each of them probably had a piece of that tapestry of history we wish to learn more about. What I failed to realize is that even then in 1975, I too was living through a history I had no interest in recording. I remember a few scattered details; how milk was sold in plastic bags; how the post office and most banks were run by the government, how trains were timely and efficient and how you needed your passport wherever you went. I was surprised at How most people had a national ID card in addition to passports and how different all the grocery stores were from each other. Also I strongly remember how the young people identified with the communist party, often singing Das International at parties, how a revolution in Chili was constantly discussed, and how it all contrasted with my sworn signature on my own passport saying I never had anything to do with the communist party. All I knew was that the communists had been in North Vietnam, that they ran Russia, that the school library had a book for kids called "What You Should Know About Communism." Not until I read more later did I learn about Joe McCarthy or the revolution my German friends were talking about. I dimly thought that if freedom of speech was such a great thing, that it shouldn't be denied to communists, but I had no real idea who they were, and where they conspired.
I remember my German schoolfriend Angela who once told me in a whisper that she was Jewish, that her family secretly celebrated the holidays. I thought Germany was open and welcoming to Jews in the 1970's; publicly people said they were, but Angela didn't believe it for a moment. "I only trust you because you are American," she told me once.
More memories of Germany are personal. There was a time when we went swimming on a lake with Holland on its far side, and I hid my passport under a rock, along with most of my clothes. When the border patrol requested our passports, I had to swim back across, frantically search for the correct rock, swim back one-handed, my passport held aloft. I think the border patrol felt a bit chagrined when he saw my disability. "American," he grunted "Not accustoming you this passport finding."
In my closet is a shoebox of letters I typed home, on the thinnest onion-skin, with most events sanitized for the consumption of parents. One day I must try to scan it all, and perhaps ferret out some gems of history long forgotten.
Thirty years ago, in 1981, Reagan was president, and in liberal Berkeley, where I lived at the time, everyone was horrified and stunned by his Star Wars initiatives. There was little knowledge of terrorists attacks, Iran was mentioned in the same breath as the hostage crisis, and people still sharply remembered Watergate from a few years before.
I had worked as a section 504 trainer for CIL, and I remember flying in a tiny prop plane to Montana to train some folks in their disability civil wrights. I remember a similar training in Michigan, where people called themselves "handicapped" and we Berkeley-bites introduced them to the idea that pushing for your rights was OK even if it did cost, because you couldn't put a price on leveling the playing field. I didn't think of those people as conservative, just backwards, because they still needed their consciousness raised; they were country-folk in the hinterlands who apologized for being handicapped and alive-- they didn't understand even the concept of equal access.
Enough rambling. Now to today. What can I say about 2011, that won't necessarily be remembered clearly three decades hence?
First, this idea of civil rights. Everyone excepts that Asian, black, Latino peoples are equal. Everyone excepts that women are equal. And people claim to accept that the disabled are equal, but a few ugly facts, like the price of equality do intrude. Today, we remember restrooms with five stalls and shorter lines, but they are a thing of the past because the handicapped stall has swallowed up three. Today massive cuts in education are making the schools scramble for funding, asking local taxpayers to foot the bill. But the elephant in the room is the expense of leveling the playing field for the disadvantaged and disabled. Nobody questions well-meaning regulations designed to keep schools and public buildings safe. Other public services are suffering massive budget cuts as well, with some cities going bankrupt and others merging their police and fire services with larger cities next door. Massive pension debt has scared cities, and even the right for public sector workers to engage in collective bargaining is threatened. I hear that only 7% of our private workers are unionized, 12% of public sector employees, yet conservative opinion unanimously seems to believe that unions have to go. And nobody is discussing how unfunded mandates, intended to better society are also causing their own kind of poison.
Thirty years ago, as a beneficiary of rehab funding, I could get pretty much any device or service I needed if I could prove it would expedite my education. That kind of freewheeling spending is certainly a thing of the past, but one wonders if thirty years from now unions will be flourishing or extinct. One wonders how ultimately we will emerge from the current financial crisis, or if it will still be dragging on. Will I still have health insurance or any savings? Will workers still use 401K or 403B to save for retirement. Will taxes still be higher than last year? And will NPR which now might be on the chopping block be around to report semi-objectively on the government?
Today, one thing that seems different than the world of thirty years ago, is the big public divide between the ultra-conservative right-wing movements, like the Tea party, and the extreme left that still breezes happily along in Bastions like San Francisco. The left don't want the cuts, the right demand cuts, and everyone else tries to decide which things to keep and how to avoid it costing too much. On the radio, you can hear Rush Limbaugh blaring out for three hours every morning, insulting put-downs drawing even more conservative listeners in. And those same conservatives to me seem very hypocritical since they are happy to take handouts that benefit their special interests. They dislike regulation and fashion themselves as rugged individualists who don't need social programs. However, they have no problems limiting free trade, or asking regulators to look the other way if it can increase their profits, even at other peoples' expense. They do not remember that their grandmothers might have barely escaped the triangle shirtwaist fire, or that their education even occurred during the generous sixties.
I feel more comfortable with the liberals, who misguided our nation in to deeper debt but at least seem to do it with concerns for the less fortunate. Will all those conservatives on the radio like Sean Hanity, Glen Beck and Michael Savage actually push the average John IQ. to implement changes that bring us closer to the constitution and farther away from being a socialist state? Supposedly we pay the highest corporate taxes of any nation now and everyone wants freedom, even if it means constricting the freedom of some other group. Even liberals with whom I naturally identify want freedom for the disadvantaged at the cost of freedom for the marketplace. Ayn Rand had some good points; do people even read her today?
Thinking about liberals, political correctness itself threatens freedom of expression. In our attempts to not offend anyone we squelch others. Today people do seem to be getting tired of affirmative action and politically correct language, but the backlash is often mean-spirited or at least rude and insulant.
Despite what I hear on the radio, the media seems to me to be uncritically liberal. the Today Show is certainly got a liberal bias, with its constant chasing after sensational news and its focus on Obama as the best thing since sliced bread. Its regular criticism of George W. Bush leads most Americans to believe that he was totally wrong-headed about weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein' purview and so we mostly hate former president Bush. We like his father, because Bush senior got us in and out of the Kuwait war quick, but will history tell us later that both Bushes were terribly misguided or that they were powerful leaders who made the right decisions. How much of our hatred of Bush junior is fomented by the liberal media? As an open-minded person, I tried to read and listen to both the liberals and conservatives in a vain attempt to find some truth in between. But without media to inform us, we have no information, therefore our opinions are censored, even if advertising, rather than politics control the information.
And that is also a divide. Some believe that the Internet lets people access a wider variety of media outlets. Want world news? You can check out hundreds of sites? Want local information? That is here too. You can read bloggers, watch YouTube, click on anything and everything you want. This is supposed to keep us better informed.
But old-school journalism believes that people are dumber, clicking on sound bytes, flitting from one story to the next, and that basically we have a national attention deficit that prevents us from getting educated on our world. They believe that once, networks were seen as a public trust with obligations to inform us about current events, and that news was not entertainment. Now, it certainly is packaged as such. The media makes no attempt to educate us. And without education will we make wise decisions about our future?
I am concerned that media today is more interested in ratings than in keeping us informed, but is it the media's lack of information that killed the public's desire for it, or is it the public's appetite for scandal and sensation what killed the media's reputation?
I remember trying to read Scientific American many years ago, and the articles were too long and involved for me to follow. I remember Fortune had long articles as well, that really delved in to the practices and cultures of different businesses and their leaders. I think I could have been an investor then, but today, with only sound bites to guide me, I doubt it.
This week, the big news is that tonight, the federal government will need to shut down if the democrats and republicans can't agree on the budget. At our California state level, the same thing is happening; Jerry Brown tried to eliminate redevelopment agencies, and some entities want him cutting education more, while others want him to cut it less. Nobody seems to realize that the government is a mirror of our own conflicted beliefs, our yearning to continue the high quality and ubiquity of favorite social programs, vs. our desire to keep our own personal tax burdens down. Surprisingly nobody seems in favor of a flat tax, nobody wants to cut those unfunded mandates that regulate our health, safety and support for the less fortunate. Nobody wants their pet social programs cut, and nobody wants to trim the wings of suit-happy lawyers. These are my partial solutions to our current budget debacle, but my solutions aren't popular.
Several airlines are in the news as their fleet ages and problems, like a hold bursting in the fuselage midflight, causes public outrage and fear. The result: inspections increase and flights canceled en masse.
Right now our aging infrastructure isn't in the news because no bridges have collapsed recently. Just let a passenger train derail, or a state loose power for a week and suddenly infrastructure will be the big item again.
Everything from national parks to highway repairs is going to be downsized anyway; it isn't popular politically to spend on infrastructure. Recent investigative journalism has uncovered that California wasn't properly regulating the earthquake safety of schools in a report called "On Shaky Ground" but though agencies are being blamed, nobody is suggesting that extra be spent to give them more employees. And we have no idea if the agency that oversees this kind of thing is inefficient or underresourced.
Alternative energy is discussed a great deal, because we have to import oil from countries that are mostly hostile, and because we have no more domestic coal. For the average citizen, improvements in alternate energy seem to move glacially. A few companies will convert your home to solar, at an exorbitant price. We see a few more wind farms, and you read about biodiesel. And a few cars, like the Chevy Volt that run only on electricity are now available for consumers. But most of that electricity still comes from sources that are not renewable. There's a controversy about whether subsidizing corn grown only for fuel is wise. At Deanza college where I work, they installed three charging stations, adjacent to the almost always empty bike rack. These stations will charge electric cars for a price. Will these be universal in thirty years and will gasoline disappear?
James Kunselor, in "The Long Emergency" predicts that it will take a long time for us to ramp up to an infrastructure that depends only on renewable energy.
Last year, my neighbors and I fought city government with Nimby fervor to prevent developers from taking over every inch of ground with tightly packed condominiums. We heard endlessly about the city's future plans for walkable communities and local commerce. But they made no plans for public transit to improve, other than locating the condos near existing bus stops, where most of the transit that used to run was cut out of the previous year's budget anyway. They made no provision to reduce traffic, other than adding more signals. They had no plans for a grocery store or any kind of shopping center the condo residents could actually walk to. Basically they used the green bandwagon to promote more suburbs.
And even here there's no right answer. The $73 million developers offered the city to bribe them in to letting them develop would have gone a long way towards plugging holes in its deficit.
It's like the school junk food controversy. MacDonalds and Coke, to name just two, have funded some schools' extracurricular activities in exchange for promoting their wares to the kids. Schools need the money, and fast food needs the commerce. Kids need the extracurricular events. But obesity is a big public health concern as well.
When I was a kid, we didn't talk about walkable communities, because we walked to school and home. Families often had one car, Dad came home to dinner prepared by Mom and in my neighborhood at least, any neighbor who saw us doing something bad could punish us. A shopping center I could walk to was built near my home when I was around ten.
The grade school I live across the street from today, is invaded twice a day by hordes of parents dropping their kids off. My little nephews don't play outside much. The parents seem way too alarmed about child molesters, but I'm not a parent. But kids don't play outside on my block as much as we 1960s kids played. The media says it's TV, computer games, worried parents and too much junk food in school, or maybe just too many cars. The dream of a walkable community anywhere here in Silicon Valley is certainly far away.
CalTrain which says it's been serving the Peninsula for 150 years is drastically cutting back service. VTA, which built the lovely Baypoint transfer station for light-rail passengers has cut so much and accommodated routes to fit, that this station is barely used. I expect BART to be next. We're supposed to get out of our cars and ride the public transit that isn't. Why is there no push to force employers to consider having us work from home? Now that would be environmentally friendly.
Several model buildings around the community preport to use mostly solar energy. Our local humane society is green certified, and the Kirsch Environmental center at De Anza also has some prestigious seal showcasing its environmental consciousness. But as far as I can tell, average buildings still use as much power, more in fact, because we have more computers, we don't turn them off much and every device from a Fax machine to a dictation recorder needs a walwart which consumes power even if the gizmo isn't connected. We have lights that don't automatically shut off, and workers who receive no rewards for being power thrifty. Before climate control, you could control your climate in coastal California by simply opening windows most of the time, or by pulling down the shades in the cold winter and hot summer. We still are irresponsible enough to wax poetic about the environment while designing buildings with no windows that open.
Our college has a lot of stuff that keeps breaking, from door locks to toilet paper holders in the restrooms. I'm told it is because legally we have to accept the lowest bid from contractors. But this costs our funding sources more in the long run. Society is just filled with these contradictions.
Technology does seem to improve however on the consumer front. Though we use laptops and PCS for word processing and spreadsheets, more and more, the smartphone is the computer people carry everywhere. The iPhone has only been out three years, but its touchscreen interface truly is a paradigm shift. My mom saw an iPad II at Target of all things and now she has to have an iPAD. People don't care that it has to be activated by and later tethered to iTunes to be completely useful. Will that be its Achilles heel? Android tablets and phones are competing too, but their very openness makes them inconsistent, often poorly designed and mostly inferior to the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. For example, manufacturers can implement any subset of Android they choose; lock out apps they dislike, and use hardware that isn't powerful to run some parts of the operating system. I'd like to see Android win in this battle for the best PDA/Phone, but I have my doubts. I saw a report about a Trojan that installs on Android phones and emails everyone in your address book telling them your phone is compromised. Similar reports caused Google to actually start remotely pulling apps off of consumers' phones. Will we have a future where you will come home to a fridge infected with an electronic virus and find its manufacturer has disconnected the power and your food is all rotting?
Ray Kurzweil predicted that in 2010, we'd all be connected to a censorium where the Internet would be just an eyeblink away. That's not happening exactly. There is 3G and 4G which is supposed to be faster, but at $30 a month you get only 2GB. Even home bandwidth will be capped, the rumors say, or at least there will be a limit on the number of bytes you can get per month. This will definitely put a dent in streaming services. You can now stream movies directly to your phone, and look up anything anywhere, provided there's a cell tower nearby and enough cash in your wallet. The poor need not apply.
And the poor are invisible. There is less welfare for them today, social security, Medicaid, medicare and aid to families with dependent children has been cut. They often work two jobs. I see the face of the poor more, because they are my paratransit drivers, working twelve -hour shifts, barely awake, and unskilled enough they have no other employment prospects. And right before 911, everyone in congress was debating about the bankrupcy of social security. There's supposed to be none left when my paratransit drivers retire, if they don't first loose their jobs when cars can eventually drive themselves.
And there is progress on that front. High-end cars can keep you in your lane. The NFB challenged companies to come up with a driverless car that a blind man could command, and someone won the prize last year. But it isn't ready yet for a real road.
Another paradigm shift that I haven't seen anyone writing about is the idea that you buy content that has no physical substance. I can log on to Itunes, or the Amazon store and with a single click purchase a song, video or ebook for downloading. It may or may not contain the hateful digital rights management that prevents us from copying it freely. But people accept this quietly, selling their records and CDS, filling their hard disks with "content" that a stray wrong bit can blow away.
Because my job involves producing digital content, I back it up to CD. I notice that CDS I made ten years ago aren't reliable. I know that consumer-grade CDS wear out faster than commercial ones, but that means all of the amateur content of today, the podcasts, blogs and videos will disappear in to ether. Even if some archaeologist uncovers a cache of old CDS will he be able to read any of them still?
The old computers that my husband restores often contain foam that has disintegrated in to sticky dust. I understand that this same thing has happened with the original astronauts' space suits.
Kurzweil also predicted the ubiquity of voice response systems, and that's partially implemented. More and more you call a service and must utter precise instructions like "Reservations" and "Credit Card Validation" instead of pressing numbers on your touchtone pad. But you can't have a conversation with the automated attendant. You can't say "I seem to be missing some income that should have been direct-deposited to my account" for example. However the mindless reps who man most customer-service lines today are even more annoying than computers. They seem to have been required to prove their IQ was limited before being handed the job!
One of my earliest memories, probably in the early sixties was making long-distance calls, how expensive it was, how you talked quick because you didn't want to spend more time than you could afford. How the phone lines hummed and chirped as you first dialed (no touch tones, a real dial) the operator, who contacted the long-distance operator, who actually made your connection. I remember my dad telling about the big underseas cables that connected us with Europe. Later I read about the many attempts made to lay those cables, and the political and commercial wrangling over rights and expenses to connect us overseas.
Today we use Skype, if we are computer savvy, and VOIP phones if we are not. Will thirty years from now this all become a seamless infrastructure? Will old-fashioned wired phones completely disappear, and will everyone only use cell connections? Now on a list of disappearing jobs on this morning's news, they said the job of telephone linemen is in danger.
I listened to one of the first Internet radio broadcastsof Science Friday, archived online. It was done in 1993 using RealMedia when the Internet was still for most consumers a new cool thing. People could only imagine the possibilities of the web. A futurologist said that one day you would be able to ask the Internet a question and it would answer.
Today, people see the Internet as a part of life; but a nerdy part never the less. Media creators make youtube videos, podcasts, wikis and blogs, and the rest of us geeks consume them. There is some Luddite talk about information overload and how everyone permanently glued to an iPOD is disconnecting from real relationships. Others argue that sites like Facebook and those apps which can tell you via GPS where your friends are all physically located actually enhance the quality of real relationships. I believe that people thought TV would ruin our brains too.
Newspapers are in flux, though their demise has been predicted also for a while. Most of them have ad-laden Internet sites, and young people say they get most of their news from the Internet, but whether it is the New York Times or the Chicago sun they are logging on to, it is hard to tell. My unscientific observations have me believing it is more like Facebook and Youtube! At any rate, circulation is dropping, and papers are facing bankrupcy. Old farts like me think literacy is in decline, and judging from the student papers I read from the flash drives they leave with me, I have plenty of evidence. But nobody asks the question of whether literacy matters; perhaps it will not.
Also thinking about the media, it's fascinating to see the changes television has gone through. Today for a price you can get TV on your phone, any time and anywhere. For free, you can get digital broadcasts, but analog broadcasting ceased in January of last year. I recorded the audio from those stations the last night they were on the air, because it seemed historical. Digital was promoted is way better, but no more could you easily get the signal in a fringe area, or with a battery TV that you moved from place to place. Digital signals need a better antenna that is in a fixed location. Digital signals let broadcasters add more channels to their streams, and send more content through the airwaves. They enabled the FCC to sell the wide spectrum previously gobbled up by analog signals. It was progress.
But Comcast cable, the monopoly that isn't, took advantage of this unrelated change in broadcasting to force its customers to go digital as well. They insisted we use cable boxes to suck up the signal, as they encrypt more and more of their channels. Eventually, I predict we'll have to rent those cable boxes, the way customers who chose digital, rather than having it forced on them do, but for now it's no additional cost.
Comcast's competitors are AT&T which now controls DirectTV, I believe, and Dish Networks, also satellite. The promotion campaign for AT&T now is called U-Verse, which gives you 500 some channels, and Comcast calls its ultimate channel line-up X-finity. They offer deceptive low prices $29.95 for the first six months, but you have to sign a contract. T-Mobile also offers $10 a month for broadband net access via cellphone, called 4G, but it's equally deceptive. It gives you a capped 200 MB, not enough to stream much of anything.
As a child, I remember all programming was generated by the three big networks, NBC, ABC and CBS. Today TV is fragmented among many networks, and a variety of fascinating books have documented this change.
It is disturbing how contradictory TV messages can be. Conservatives see modern comedies as rude and vulgar and lacking in family values, but at the same time, they keep ratings up which must make many investors and TV executives happy. And people clearly want to watch this stuff. Rap lyrics create this same kind of uncomfortable doublethink.
On TV the popular show American Pickers glorifies hoarding while several other shows exhibit the deplorable conditions that compulsive hoarders live under.
Today the craze is reality shows, everything from Survivor to American Idol. My husband and I loved Ice Road Truckers. Also popular are cooking shows, but people spend less and less time at home, so I think they fantasize more about whipping up gourmet meals than they actually do. Shows like Trading Spaces and Say Yes To The Dress show off our narcisistic streak. And people are intrigued with the paranormal and supernatural, UFOs, ghosts, vampires and zombies. Broadcasts abound.
Also worth mentioning is the attempts of both Comcast and AT&T to control your entire media experience with bundles that include Internet, TV and phone service; Comcast calls its service Triple Play. The phone service is also IP-based, and I wonder if any great catastrophe will cause a triple melt-down of all services, since they run through essentially the same fiber-optic wiring.
What is ubiquitous today that won't be in thirty years? Did we ever think LP records would be endangered? Did my parents listening to 1940s radio dramas realize how fleeting their reign would be? Did people think telegraphs and train travel, both hallmarks of 19th century life, would disappear as quickly as it did. So what is common today that is going away?Maybe it's the keyboard I'm typing on, with that grease stain near the spacebar. Maybe it's my snazzy new flat-screen LED TV. Maybe it's something like rubber bands, ziplock bags, Barbie dolls or sweatshirts. I'd write more about that one ordinary part of life now if I knew it would disappear!
And what craze will grab the future? Today we look back laughingly at cabbage patch dolls and pet rocks. Will people of the future collect original iPods the way we collect old radios today?
I also think about diaries. Reading real journal entries is one of my favorite parts of history. Did the journal writers worry that the paper would disintegrate? Will our blogs and emails get preserved?
I see I'm asking more questions, and my future self won't want that. She'll want to know what life was like today, really; for me to remind her about ordinary everyday things. I can remind her how leaf blowers are not quiet, and how primitive voice recognition was. I can remind her how bitter the battles over gay marriage were. I can remind her how hard my college tried to recruit more Latino students. I can remind her how we worried about our health and spent a lot of time working out at the gym and how there were so many TV commercials for pills to maintain your sexual prowess, banish insomnia and offer comfort for allergy sufferers. But maybe all of this stuff will continue to be future concerns as well.
Take Starbucks. It wasn't an institution thirty years ago, though I loved the little coffeehouses in Berkeley it tried to imitate. Back then, poets did really sit around composing doggerel, and students argued politics while consuming capuccino. "The Espresso Experience" on College and Bancroft was a favorite hangout with a sunladen patio and chairs made of wooden spools.
Today's starbucks seems to have fifty drinks with hundreds of variations. There is music playing that you can buy from the iTunes store with a single click. Being wired means having Internet access as well as being energetically full of caffeine. It is a place to go and meet friends, or to sip quietly while enjoying a good book. You can get a sandwich or pastry too, buy coffee beans or a travel mug, and there is one in every neighborhood.
That is one example of something ordinary today that could be gone thirty years from now. Maybe budget cuts will force all schools online, and my busy campus, with book-bearing students rushing to class, or chatting on the benches by the cafeteria will be a thing of the past. They'll just click their way to a degree.
Maybe instructors will no longer pontificate in front of whiteboards while half the class texts their friends and the other half frantically scribble notes or wave their hands in the air. Perhaps they won't go to the library to study, and schools won't have to worry if they have the funds to keep all their computers upgraded to the newest and latest thing.
Should I tell my future self about the Roomba, the first house robot, that scuttles around on its little wheels like a bug, vacuuming the room in a semi-random pattern that leaves dog hair behind. The new improved Roomba can return home to its charger and plug itself in.
On the science front we hear about virtual reality, genetic engineering, quantum mechanics, nanotechnology and endless medical breakthroughs, all which are supposed to improve our lives. I follow this stuff, but don't see it changing much currently. You read that scientists can now take pictures of rats dreaming; that is they have pictures of the rat's dreams. You read that quadreplegics and those poor people who are locked in can now control items onscreen with just brain waves. Scientists are growing brains in petri dishes which they plan to try to interface with robots. They are trying to interface our human brain to computers. They are growing skin on a substrate and playing with stem cells and cells that are similar hoping that generating organs will be easier in the future. You read that some of the pseudo-stem cells they've generated actually become diseased more quickly, creating organs that are weak and underperforming still. You read about flat plates which will use some form of capacitor to charge your electronic gizmo instantly, but they certainly have not appeared for you to acquire at Best Buy. You read about space elevators being constructed of carbon nanotubes, and quantum computers that instead of being binary will know about seven distinct states. But though fascinating it's not technology that seems to be making any impact, say the way the iPAD II is doing with its round-the-block lines in front of stores, and consumers eagerly snap up the few that are in inventory.
Our first probe has flown by Mercury and taken pictures. The little energizer bunny Opportunity is still trekking across mars, seven years after it landed, while Spirit is stranded out of sunlight with a stuck wheel. Will people land on Mars and eventually find the rovers and tell us how they are really doing? Or will we find that telemetry is good enough and we won't desire or need manned missions anywhere? The scifi writers sixty years ago thought we'd be colonizing planets by now. I remember a 1960s episode of The Outer Limits, where a head was kept alive by a tank to which it was permanently attached. Today we've decoded the human genome but we are a long way from defining consciousness or keeping a human head alive.
Last week the news was all about Libya, and the debates were all about how Obama should have been more or less aggressive when trying to contain our interference in this country. It seems like we are taking a larger and larger role interfering in foreign countries, ever since Teddy Roosevelt sent Taft on his secret mission in 1905 to Japan to hand them Korea. Yet as citizens, we are very divided about whether this involvement is or is not a good thing for us. Will our future see us scaling back, and will we have a better understanding of why radical Islam hates us so? Or will we be as far from political answers as we are from answers to the scientific riddles?
Predicting the future is still awful popular, and I should go through some books which will be out of print soon enough and highlight what they say. It fascinates me to find out which predictions actually come true.
I am intrigued by the public fascination with end times prophecy. There is Coast To Coast, the graveyard talk show originated by Art Bell that explores UFO sightings and other pseudoscience. Not a week passes that it doesn't cover something about 2012. On September 21st of that year, according to programs on the history channel that repeatedly air, a catastrophe will commence that was predicted by Nostradamos, Mother Shipton, the Mayas, the Hopis and the book of revelation -- How could all these esteemed sources be wrong? And we've had a lot of earthquakes, hurricanes and Tsunamis lately. And web bots have even "predicted" a 2012 catastrophe.
But though people cannot get enough of the world ending, it is still only crazy survivalists that actually prepare. Catastrophes in the future include electromagnetic pulses, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, plagues, atomic attack, lack of water, limited energy, a big solar flare, financial melt-down, massive crop die-off from disease, terrorist bioweapons, and an asteroid hitting the earth. This stuff is really popular with all the media now, books, radio, TV, podcasts, blogs. But we just consume and are a bit overwhelmed with it. We aren't building shelters, stockpiling supplies, relearning old skills or growing victory gardens as a society. We are playing with our i-devices and running to Wallmart for the latest styles. Is this going to be our downfall, or is all this future pessimism totally unwarranted? After all, mammography has cut the deaths from breast cancer by a third since 1990!
This week's big techno-movie is "The Source Code" something about the man-machine interface and virtual reality. Haven't seen it yet, and I wonder if it's described. Will it become a classic or be considered something B grade 30 years from now?
In the movie, apparently someone transfers to a parallel universe, but he's not in the same time as he was in his current universe. Our culture shows a remarkable plasticity between science and faith though, when a recent host asked a scientist on his program if the scientist "believed" in parallel universes. I wonder if historians looking back at our time will say that the conflict between science and religion was a recurring theme.
Before Galileo we had no real conflict between these two studies. Today creation science and intelligent design tries to bridge the gap. People implicity choose whether to believe in science or God. Some see God or gods as merely ancient aliens who dropped in for an occasional visit and to meddle with the technology of early civilizations. But just as we used to see Veliskosvky's plate tectonics as crank science, perhaps some of these other theories will eventually become more or less respectable. It's kind of a free-for-all age, where you have the freedom more or less to believe in whatever you want, and even though gay marriage is being hotly disputed, most people are free to do most things they desire. I wonder if these freedoms will be preserved.
But religion might change too. The Vatican, backwards as it is about punishing its child-molesting priests seems very forward thinking when it decided that extraterestrials might exist and that they are part of God's plan. And just this week 67 metal books were found in some cave and according to the media have more explosive ramifications than the dead sea scrolls.
So it's hard, sifting through scientific, social and political trends, not to mention spirituality, technology and just plain pop culture to predict whether something that's so important now is going to be seen as landmark later on. Which of the many infomercial strategies promoted today will improve wealth? Which financial advisor's investment strategy will prevail, or in hindsight be seen as cruelly foolish? Which technology will grow and influence the next generation? Which of today's new jobs will excel in to the future? What should I focus on now telling early stories about?
Perhaps we will outlaw nuclear power before a big accident, and some serendipity will lead to a free energy source much safer and infinitely renewable. Maybe we will find a way to make nuclear power safe and dispose of the waste. Maybe we will discover a peaceful path to winning over warring nations. These are all the problems endlessly discussed but unresolved today.
Even though 911 almost ten years ago was shocking, to us on the West Coast it was more like the nuclear meltdown after the earthquake hitting Japan. It was very tragic; we tried to help, we watched CNN. For the people I know, it did not significantly change their lives.
We note that there was an earthquake in New Zealand, one in Turkey, one in Mexico, continuing after-shocks in Japan, so it makes me wonder, are earthquakes increasing in frequency today, or is the media just better at reporting them?
Today I watched the free video from Stansberry and Associates at www.endofamerica38.com. He claims our demise will come from the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, foundation of the world economy and that martial law will ensue as banks close, and our economy collapses. This is the catastrophe that he says will threaten in the near future our entire way of life. Should I intensively grow potatoes or stockpile real gold? Should I be sure the potatoes are different varieties and that the gold is not onsite?
Thirty-five years ago, Howard Ruff published "How to Prosper During The Coming Bad Years" a summary of the content of his newsletter The Ruff Times, which essentially said the same thing and it was my introduction to this doomsday preparedness stuff. But I'm not as convinced as these guys that the world is ending, and I'm not as convinced as the happy socialists that we need to create more laws, costly to society as a whole, to protect the downtrodden. Today, we have so many experts claiming that other experts are wrong I think our national paralysis reflects that nobody, especially the experts have no real idea what's in store and what to do about any of it.
The Stansberry and Associates free video mentioned above is an informercial masquerading as prophecy. He claims if you subscribe to his newsletter and invest in his five reports which detail the secrets of his recession proof strategies that you will be able to escape the collapse of the U.S. dollar. Which brings me to the point that even as he espouses investing, he's just like everyone else in America; driven to market something to us. Will this second decade of the 21st century be known as the age of marketing?
We are not dealing with our economic deficits or paying back our debts. Some claim the government is printing more money, and so deeply in debt it can never recover. Many claim that the government has repeatedly lied about the depth of the financial crisis. Just a few years ago, we were told to start spending more to jumpstart the economy, and I remember Bush signing in to law tax reductions and one-time cash incentives which enabled us to do just that. Yet, in the same breath we are told that saving and investing are crucial for our financial health. All around us, every imaginable good is market to us, but we're supposed to have enough self-control to ignore all this subliminal pushing from advertisers!
We aren't protecting our environment except for a few well-publicized stabs at the Herculean task. We are not protecting our planet's biodiversity. We are not colonizing space to protect our civilization. We are not inventing a new political system which will balance the forces of regulation, the free market and our endless appetite for social programs. We are failing to live within our means, spending more than we consume, and are not investing or saving enough. We are not fixing health insurance, our schools, rising obesity, crime, drug addiction or our aging infrastructure. At least this is what we repeatedly hear. Either naysayers are wrong, or magical thinking will prevail and we will fix at least enough of us to keep going, just like Spirit and Opportunity.