Seeing past the normal

Publication date: 14 July 2013
Originally published 2013, in
PC & Tech Authority
(in which Atomic magazine is now a section)
Last modified 14-Jul-2013.


Humans have a natural tendency to view their current cultural and technological environment as normal. Which it is, of course, for you, but beyond that tautology there's a tendency to forget that your local normalcy can, and will, change.

(This thinking is also a pseudo-conscious basis for racism: Not only are those foreigners all weird, but they're so messed up that they don't even know how weird they are! It's also the basis for conservative push-back against, for instance, the clear evidence of ongoing, and accelerating, climate change. People have trouble believing, again just for instance, that their world has changed and once-every-fifty-years storms are now coming along more often, even when they see smashed suburbs and flooded towns right there on the news. The edge of this evidence may also be blunted by the "just-world fallacy", the implicit or explicit claim that all people deserve what happens to them. If the world is getting more wicked and more people are getting killed by natural disasters, then God or karma or whatever are responsible, not CO2 emissions!)

Technology changes rapidly, but most of civilised humanity just slides their "normalcy window" along with the changes and doesn't think too much about it... until suddenly something particularly startling comes along. Or some trusted authority figure says that something particularly disturbing has come along.

Whatever the new thing is - Internet porn, encrypted communication, music piracy, designer drugs - it'll attract opposition from a lot of people desperately rationalising up some plausible reasons to complain, when the core of their objection is often just a sort of culture shock. Strange foreign people have suddenly sprouted right in our community! They may have access to our children! They may BE our children!!

Computers provide many, many examples of this sort of thing. Read 1950s sci-fi and futurism and everywhere are predictions that by 1985 we'll all be eating protein pills, wearing disposable paper clothing and commuting to work in personal helicopters. But the work we're commuting to will still have a typing pool, because almost nobody, even well into the 1960s, had the least inkling of the upcoming computer and communications revolution.

Way back in 1929, Henry Ford predicted great advances in "automatic machines". He was clearly talking about computerised process control, 20 years before the word "computer" meant something other than "a person who computes".

But Ford also made a complete hash of predicting even what future engines would be like, let alone cars and their environment. (He reckoned future highways would be made of rubber, but airstrips would still have grass on them!)

One of my favourite examples of this sort of failure is in H. Beam Piper's Fuzzy Sapiens, written in 1964 and set in the twenty-sixth century (the Fuzzy stories are today being rewritten and modernised by John Scalzi).

It is: "Grego went through alone, and down a short flight of steps to another door, brightly iridescent with a plating of collapsium, like a spaceship's hull or a nuclear reactor. There was a keyboard, like the keyboard of a linotype machine..."

(That's the ETAOIN SHRDLU keyboard, which was a museum piece by about 1995.)

And David Weber's Honor Harrington stories are set as far in the future from us as we are from Julius Caesar, but they're populated by baseline humans with moderately extended lifespans, without any artificial intelligence, or transhumanist... anything.

Eat too much? Well, we can travel faster than light, but the only way to get thin again is still exercise, if you aren't genetically metabolism-accelerated from birth. Sorry. The most culturally revolutionary thing about the Harrington stories is total sexual equality... though homosexuality seems to be almost entirely unknown, beyond faint allusions to permissive societies in which the stories aren't set.

(Weber obviously just likes to write Wooden Ships and Iron Men kinds of stories IIIIIIINNN SPAAAAACEEEE - Honor Harrington's initials are not an accident. So the reader has to just kind of go with the fact that he doesn't even attempt a background excuse for the absence of technology we can pretty much expect by 2050 AD, let alone in the fortieth century.)

Take a minute, look around you, and try to see what you normally don't. This can be quite literal. Every day, for instance, residents of the civilised world walk and drive down streets hung on both sides by numerous thick black cables, but most of us don't see the things at all, most of the time. We mentally compensate for them, in the same way as we compensate for distortion of a TV image when we're viewing it from an angle.

Imagine a kid in 2040 asking you about things like this.

"So everybody on the screen looked tall and skinny if you were looking at it from the side? And you couldn't see behind them?"

"So you watched cooking shows on this 'television' thing... and you couldn't even smell the food?"

"What happened if one of the people who were allowed to drive cars drove their car or even truck into a power pole and all the electric wires fell down?"

"So buses and trains just went round and round, driven by another person who could cause a disaster at any moment, whether or not there was even anybody on them?"

"So... TV timetables, and bus and train timetables..."

"So people dressed up and put makeup on their faces and stood in front of a camera and pretended to be someone else... and this was somehow a big business? Why did anyone believe the same actor was now a different person?"

"It was hard to get elected if you weren't tall and attractive?!"

It's an entertaining mental exercise to try to look at the world anew and wonder what people in the future will find as unbelievable as we, today, find debtors' prisons, disposing of household sewage by throwing it in a hole or out the window, and the numerous public entertainments of the European peasantry that involved torturing animals.

(The tossing-your-sewage-in-a-hole thing may make a comeback, though. Heck, at the moment most of the western world uses potable water to flush their poo away. Viewed from outside our local normalcy, that makes about as much sense as running your car on single-malt Scotch.)

Don't kid yourself that this exercise will actually make you good at truly predicting the future, because that seems to be impossible.

But there's more to it than that. If you can account for your natural assumption that whatever's going on right now where you happen to be is perfectly normal and natural, you can often get an inkling of what could be on the way, by studying what's here already.

Back in 1929, Henry Ford presented his predictions, comprising one hit and about a dozen misses. But then he said, "individually men invent but little. We accomplish most by combining in new ways, principles and devices previously discovered".

The breakneck progress of Web sites and social networks and new ways of outraging corporations, governments and religions is all about this. Super-fast online communication lets anyone and anything be connected to anyone and anything else in ways which Ford, after a little sit down and a possible reconsideration of his lifelong commitment to put ethanol only in fuel tanks, would probably find fascinating.

(Actually, Ford probably wouldn't ask for a stiff drink no matter what happened. He hated booze almost as much as he hated Jews. Who he thought were, of course, in charge of the alcohol trade, and most other evil things in the world.)

The current rapid development of new physical devices may undergo a similar explosion, if home and small-business 3D fabrication keeps developing as it currently is.

I've very little idea what's on the way. Maybe it is paper clothes and personal helicopters. We all do still, after all, want our flying cars.

But I don't think there's anything special about where I am, just because I happen to be here.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)