Dan Squints At The Future, Again

Originally published 2003 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

I've taken an awful lot of photos. Maybe well over a hundred thousand, by now. I'm not sure, because most of them have been product shots of one kind or another, and fiddling around with lighting and exposure and angle means that several images go to the bit bucket for every one I bother to keep.

But I don't think I've taken more than 20 film photos in my life.

I'm a member of a new generation - people for whom film photography feels weird and old and, well, icky.

Put the flamethrowers away, silver-halide lovers. I know all of the practical and artistic reasons why film is still relevant and sensible. I just don't want to use it.

Heck, even manual focus feels weird to me. Oh, sure, I know that my eye can focus as well as a machine can, and I use manual focus often enough, and I have strictly limited respect for people who stand there and take 103 photos of the Sydney Opera House with their camera's auto-focus beeping for every one of them, despite their subject's lack of any propensity to move. And who knows, old-school rangefinder focus may live on in the digital age; one such camera's been announced already.

But if I ever buy a camera that can't autofocus, it'll be after I've retired and started pottering around with antiques.

What else is going to go the way of film photography? What else is going to have a new generation of people who do things the New Way, and consider the Old Way to be up there with stagecoaches and hitting your washing on a rock?

Well, there's books, of course. And every other kind of current media delivery system, except P2P applications.

Old farts like Kurt Vonnegut (he said it, not me) may be convinced that books "involve our hands and eyes, and then our minds and souls, in a spiritual adventure". But I read that passage in a copy of Timequake that spat out its bookmark half a dozen times while I was reading it, and also spat out the Post-It I stuck in there to mark the page the quote came from. And it fell open anywhere but where I was up to, and it wouldn't stay open without supervision or artificial assistance. At least the binding held. All of those marvellous book "features", Kurt can keep. He can share them with Ray Bradbury, if he likes.

But electronic books are too expensive and too fragile and their screens look lousy and their batteries don't last long enough and you can't get enough content for them!

Yep.

Also - rewind 100 years - automobiles are too expensive and they break down and there's practically nowhere you can buy fuel and there aren't nearly enough good roads to drive them on!

Typewriters still exist today, but they're hardly popular in modern Western society. Books'll go much the same way.

Books in the future will probably be like mechanical watches are today. There'll be a bunch of paper books - some in great condition, some lousy, some virtually destroyed - still sitting around from when they were the only kind of book that existed. And there'll be boutique operations still making books, for connoisseurs who are perfectly aware that this isn't the ideal way to do the job, but who appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into making a well-bound book, just as you can still buy new clockwork watches.

The finest mechanical watch in the world doesn’t keep time as well as a five buck supermarket quartz watch; the finest bound book in the world won't deliver data to your brain as well as an evolved e-book, which will no longer suffer from problems with display resolution, battery life, capacity or purchase price.

It's not at all improbable that this'll happen. There's plenty of precedent. When electronic watches first started showing up, they were as expensive as midrange wanker-watches are today. If you bought an original "tuning fork" Bulova Accutron in 1966, six years after it was introduced and after the initial price premium had worn off, you'd still pay around $US175. Inflation adjusted, that's around $US1000.

It'll be a while before we have an e-book that can cope with being whacked with a hammer. We may never have one. But they'll still beat out paper, sooner or later, and the kids'll think anyone reading a wood-pulp book looks rather retro.

Well, they will as long as the dead hand of corporate-owned copyright doesn't strangle e-books, along with other portable media devices. If you think legal prohibition of sensible things can't hang on for decade after decade and even get worse and worse, I invite you to try smoking a joint in public in most of the Western world.

Bottle of vodka in your briefcase? No problem, Officer. Ounce of weed? You're boned.

If we assume that the eventual legislative equilibrium reached by the media dinosaurs and the Copyright, Schmopyright crowd doesn't put MP3 players in the same category as bongs, though, then I think a lot of separate media objects are going to become anachronistic.

Books, CDs, DVDs; all will collapse into a single general-purpose solid-state storage lump you carry around with you, or possibly into a nebulous data-cloud you can access from wherever you happen to be.

If the communications companies don't make network access into a service that's more like water than like a phone line, then ad-hoc mesh networking devices look likely to walk right past them and eat their lunch. Then, the technology that makes your digital camera and mobile phone and music/video player work, storing and retrieving and transmitting data by some means and in some place not immediately obvious to the user, will also help make everyone else's gadgets work.

And if Sony won't make devices that work with the mesh, you can bet that Sanctified Griffin Manufacturing Corporation of Guangzhou, China will. And those devices will be about as easy to keep out of a country as are all-region DVD players today.

What else is going to look Old School in short order?

Well, youth employment be damned. The supermarket checkout as we know it has got to go.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag prices are dropping, so here come non-stop high-efficiency trundle-through checkout lanes, just like the E-Tag lanes on toll roads. With technology to avoid "tag collision", a trolley full of products, even if some of them are identical, can be scanned in one go. And with an RF-enabled credit card, you can pay for that trolley-load by waving your wallet (or your arse, assuming a back-pocket wallet location) past another sensor. You'll just have to look out for jokers dropping stuff you don't want into your trolley.

(And, of course, for distant snipers harvesting your insecure RFID data with a directional antenna.)

There's more to life than mere efficiency, of course. If you like reading books or dawdling around a little shop full of interesting things or watching Casablanca in all its black-and-white, 24-frame-per-second, 4:3-aspect-ratio, low-resolution glory in a cinema that has sticky carpet, then I hope you'll always be able to do it.

Efficiency is one hundred per cent desirable when it's applied to things that you don't like doing, though.

And I think waiting for your photos to come back from the lab, using shelf after poorly-organised shelf to store data that can fit on one $200 hard drive already, and waiting in line at the supermarket, all qualify.

All this is small potatoes, though.

Next month: Why every single thing you own today may look about as high-tech as a stone axe by 2050 AD.

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