Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thinking About the Future

Back to the Future, Part II is such an awkward middle child, and yet such a great movie.  I like it so much more than Part I, in spite of (perhaps because of) it having no beginning and no end.  Unfortunately, it has not aged well, due in no small part to its depiction of the year 2015.  It got a few things right, such as the wave of 80's nostalgia (anyone see Adventureland this weekend?) and some--though not all--of the advances in cosmetic surgery (i.e., Doc Brown's face job?).  But it's 2009 now and we're getting close enough to see how much Robert Zimeckis and company screwed up.

Now, obviously, this was a fantastical movie that was never intended to be a serious look forward at tech trends; it was escapist fun with--wooooohooooo--hoverboards and a flying DeLorean.  Still, it's an engaging exercise to take a gander at what they got wrong because their assumptions about the future were very reflective of that time, and we can learn a little something about ourselves.  Furthermore, by asking ourselves why certain hot ideas didn't catch on, it might tell us about what will happen.  We can ignore, for now, the giant fake shark in the Marty-attacking preview for Jaws 19.  Digression: anybody catch Monsters vs. Aliens in 3-D last week?

Fashion - oddly enough, a lot of Grif's crew and their apparel bore more than a passing resemblance to the goth movement (albeit a highly new-wave influenced goth movement... if such a thing is possible).  The doubled-tie thing was a bit off, but a lot of the street-clothed background characters were normal-ish.  Sort of.  Disregarding style, however, it's the clothing tech that's really far off.  Grif's crew all had electronics worked into their clothes (or their bodies).  Marty's clothes were self-adjusting and self-drying.  Why hasn't this caught on?  Well, one reason is that anything with motors in it is going to add weight to the clothing, and nobody likes heavy clothing.  Also, unless the weight is evenly distributed, their going to be heavy and awkward.  Beyond that, there's not incentive to make size-adjusting clothing when an article of clothing is going to be worn by one person over and over.  It's less costly to just make individual sizes.

Voice Recognition - BTTF2 sported some top of the line voice recognition software, from hats that listened to police officers and displayed their speech in lights on the brim (I wonder if you can turn that off, e.g., if you were sneaking up on a suspect at night) to household appliances and fixtures that took voice commands (side rant: a food hydrator?  And, why wasn't it bigger?).  The tech exists, but getting it to work that precisely and reliably is prohibitively expensive.  Remember when Marty Jr. was turning on the television and asking for all the different channels.  For that to work, the television would have to recognize his voice commands over the noise of channels that were coming on.  Or better yet, the lights.  For that whole "lights on" gag to work, there would have to be a microphone in the wall that could detect Jennifer's voice from the middle of the room, differentiate it from the policewoman's voice, recognize the command and act on it, which it did almost before she'd finished saying "lights on".  Pretty cool, but here's the thing: light switches are cheap, robust, easy-to-install, easy to repair, can be operated by anyone, and save energy (a voice auth system would have to always be on, even if the lights weren't).

Hover Technology - without, it seems, any real fuel (note that Marty's Mattel hoverboard was "unpowered").  George McFly's back brace, there was a hovering dog-walker in the background of one shot.  If the tech exists, I don't know of it.  If it does exist, it's almost certainly prohibitively expensive.  But as futuristic imaginations go, this is probably the one I take the least umbrage with.  And having it in the background helps sell the idea of flying cars.  Oh yeah...

Flying Cars - people often forget that this tech has been around forever.  Yes, even today we have flying personal vehicles.  They're called private jets.  They're loud; they're costly to buy, maintain and fuel.  They require special licensing and, frankly, I can't help but thinking they'd be exceptionally dangerous under the guidance of today's regular car drivers.

Telecom - TV's replaced with bigger, flatter TV's.  Okay, that's pretty true, although the six-screens at once is less a TV thing than a computer thing these days.  Speaking of which, notice the lack of computers?  There were computers in the 80's.  There was CGI in the movie, wasn't there?  But no, instead they had a fax in every room, even the closet.  They had video phones, but, most surprisingly, no cell phones.  This would have been an easy jump to make, since there were cell phones in the 80's, but they were rare and expensive.  Same with portable music players--I wouldn't have expected them to have predicted the iPod, but walkmen were pretty ubiquitous in the 80's.

So, what basic assumptions were wrong?  The film assumed that ubiquitous everyday tech would be taken to "the next level".  Things that ran on wheels would fly.  Audio devices would have video.  Simple devices like switches and shoelaces would be replaced by complex machines with miniature motors.  In all of these cases the film ignores that such leaps would be hugely expensive and in many ways inconvenient.  Can you imagine would life would be like if your shoes needed a power supply?  Can you imagine would life in which snippets of conversation, taken out of context, might turn on and off your lights, television, and appliances?  Can you imagine trying to play a video game without your hands?  Or thinking that video games that required the use of one's hands were a "baby toy"?  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, maybe they play a lot of DDR in the future.

But the things that have exploded and come to dominate modern life (computers, the Internet, cell phones, portable music players) all had 1980's ancestors that were functional and available but rare and pricey (with the exception of the walkman, which was cheap, but low-tech).

And, again, I don't mean to rag on the movie.  Its look at the future was tongue-in-cheek (if they had attempted to be uber-serious, they still would have gotten it wrong and it'd be laughable).  But it does make you wonder what things we're wrong about when looking to our own future.

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1 comment:

Ben said...

Actually, we may have flying cars well before 2015. Ferrari claims they can have it done before the end of 2010!

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/3366415/Flying-car-based-on-Ferrari-could-be-reality-within-two-years.html