Living in a Science Fiction Novel

The Beast and I had been talking to the kids about “penny candy” (the kids have never seen that), and what things cost now compared with what they used to cost. We started laughing about how we sounded like our parents.

I had been curled up in my favorite chair in the living room, playing on a laptop with a wireless connection, updating my iPod. At one point I finally said, “Yeah, you pay seventy-five cents for a candy bar, but on the other hand, you couldn’t have an orchestra in your hand for any price.”

Not entirely true. Transistor radios came out on the market in 1954. Interestingly enough, when you do the inflation conversion, they were more expensive than the 30GB iPod is right now. (I’ve no idea what an iPod cost when it first came out. If it was under $300, it was still cheaper).

Still, it is funny to me what’s available to us. It’s even funnier when I compare it to the science fiction I’ve always loved. Asimov mentions “pocket computers” in his short stories of the 1940s. I have two (palm pilot and an iPod).

In Friday, written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1982, Heinlein discusses a society that has… well, the Internet as we actually use it, really. While our telephones are not yet integrated into our computers as a matter of course, nor do we use video phones, they can be, and many people do that even now with webcams. Certainly we write letters, pay bills, shop, arrange for travel, watch performances and do research via our computer terminals. Yes, the internet existed in 1982, but it was not something routinely used by the average working stiff who did not work in a technology field. Hell, even my systems engineer father did not use email in 1982. It’s funny. Many of the things that were meant to be futuristic in that novel seem very routine. When she talks about “sticking your card in the slot to pay for something” or to draw cash? How many of you were using ATMs or point of sale terminals in 1981? Visa came out with the POS terminal in 1979. They did exist, but were not in widespread use until a few years later, and people were not using cardholder-activated terminals until the mid-1990s in California. (For the credit card market, California is the usual test market. If it goes well, then it goes to New York City, then other large cities – the deep South being the last place for the change).

I’ve spent most of my life having the wonders of computer technology pointed out to me. My father got into the computer industry a few months before I was born in the late 1960s. I can remember as a very little girl being taken into a room with a bunch of tapes on wheels and my father very proudly showing me a quaint little punch card machine. He’d written a small program that would print my name in punch code on the card. When I was nine or ten, Mom gave Dad a pocket calculator for his birthday and Dad commented that it had more computing power than ENIAC*. I thought that was really cool.

But it’s not just computers, and it’s not just really new technology that fascinates me. I have comforts and services available to me that no king from even 200 years ago could have at any price. While I bemoan being fat, I do like the fact that food is cheap and easy to obtain in my society. I find it offensive that given the abundance and the technology we have that the distribution problem has not been solved well enough that this boon is available to the rest of the world. The technological infrastructure that supports our entire distribution system is truly amazing. I find the automobile and the spinning wheel (and how they changed the way we live) as fascinating as the microchip.

Do I think all new technology is automatically wonderful? Sure do. Oh, I think we often suffer from cranio-recto inversion when it comes to its implementation, and we’ve been doing it since long before we hunted wooly mammoths into extinction. But our nifty monkey brains and the shiny things we can come up with are just awfully cool.

So, where’s my flying car that folds into a suitcase?

*I don’t know if all my readers are nerds or not, but if you’re not, ENIAC was built in the early 1940s and is usually considered the first digital computer. It was two stories tall, used 18,000 vacuum tubes, and weighed about 30 tons. You are now reading this on a machine with a processing speed millions of times more powerful.

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