The entire premise of Red Dwarf rests on this one scene:
Lister's cat is discovered because he takes a photo of the two of them and has it developed in the ship's photo lab.
In 1988 - when Red Dwarf was first aired - nothing in the world seemed more natural than to get a photo developed in a lab. Today, however, the very thought is laughable. It seems as archaic as posting a letter, ringing a land line, or renting a video-tape.
Red Dwarf gets a lot of things right in its grasp on the future. True, the Roomba isn't yet as clever as Kryten, and our life sized holograms aren't sentient - but there's some cracking future gazing in there.
If we were to update the plot device for the 21st century, we might have the captain say:
You took a photograph of yourself with the cat and posted it on FaceBook!
But, again, in a few years time when Facebook is as dead as MySpace, the scene would look just as archaic...
In one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who - Seeds of Death - there are two lovely moments which show just how hard it is to predict the future. The episode takes place on a colony on the moon, there are matter transporters, super-computers, and all manner of high-tech futuristic gizmos.
Out of the matter transporter steps this man. Carrying a briefcase.
A beautiful future where the women wear 1960's mini-skirts and men walk around with breifcases!
The second moment is when Jamie and the Doctor are fighting the Ice Warriors. In order to get their heat gun working, Jamie has to plug it in to what looks like a bog standard electrical extension cord!
It's a future fantasy grounded in the past.
It's the little, ordinary things which writers and futurologists can sometimes fail to grasp.
It's easy to imagine a world with laser guns and teleporters. It's less easy to imagine a world where no one needs to queue at a Post Office or has to flush a toilet.
The first problem with future gazing is that we don't recognise what trivial aspects of our lives are candidates for being overhauled.
The second problem is that our views of the future are based on the current state-of-the-art.
It's easy to laugh at the spinning reels of computer tape in the 1960's Star Trek - but they represent the best view of what people thought the future was going to look like.
The challenge, for anyone interested in creating the future, is not to concentrate on big ticket items. Interstellar travel, ultra-high-speed data transfer, teleportation - these thing will (probably) all come. No doubt they will change some aspects of our society. But our monkey-brains will still be there - driving us to compete, betray, socialise, and play.
Without radical neuro-engineering, we're not going to change our fundamental nature.
The joy of technology is that it reduces the boring and difficult jobs. Both a loom and a supercomputer perform the same task - quickly and without complaint or error do a job which humans find slow, boring, and error prone.
Technology also increases the good things in our lives. Phones help us socialise, televisions entertain us, drugs keep us happy.
In this way, technological innovation is either aimed at reducing pain, or increasing pleasure.
The things which will really have an impact are those which dramatically change the way small and mundane tasks are accomplished.
The most important innovation of the 20th Century is the humble Post-It Note. Not for any technological reason, but simply because it introduced the phrase "However did we cope without...?"
Can you imagine doing the household accounts without a pocket calculator - or spreadsheet?
How did we ever arrange social dates without phones? Did we just wait for people when they were late?
Were our suitcases really packed with a dozen books when we went on holiday?
Asking strangers for directions or hotel staff for restaurant recommendations?
Perhaps it's best summed up by another quote from Red Dwarf.
Upon being awoken, Lister is told that he has been in stasis for three million years. His first thought?
I've still got that library book!
It's a joke that still resonates - but for how much longer? Library books which use Digital Restrictions Management to automatically return themselves. Soon it will be as irrelevant as "Be Kind; Rewind" stickers on rented videos.
Here are my thoughts on some trivial aspects of our lives which - if put in a sci-fi film - would draw hoots of derision from an audience from the year 2022.
- Traffic jams.
- Attracting a bar-tender's attention.
- Resetting a microwave's clock after a powercut.
- Replacing used up items (toothpaste, butter).
- Tasting a dish to see if it's salty or spicy enough.
- Recharging gadgets.
- Waiting for a taxi.
- Flossing, deodorising, and most manner of personal hygiene.
- Monthly billing cycles.