Sunday, August 2, 2009

"The Future, Far as Human Eye Could See" - Hollerith Cards and Anachronisms

Science fiction, or speculative fiction, Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon notwithstanding, doesn't always deal with The Future. But quite a bit does.

Including a set of stories I'm hoping to create.

Writers haven't had to think very hard about what The Future (capitalized) would be like, provided that they didn't mind using off-the-shelf settings. During the 20th century, The Future would be filled with gigantic buildings and sweeping elevated roadways with no obvious entrances or exits, electric biplanes and spaceships held together with huge rivets.

Later, a more (sophisticated?) standard-issue vision of the future was a post-(nuclear, bio-weapons, whatever)-apocalyptic wasteland that bore a remarkable similarity to parts of the American southwest and southern California: inhabited by desperate nomads in leather underwear and/or Rambo-styled costumes, mutant frogs, mutant people, mutant things. You get the picture.

Entertaining (or, if required, relevant) stories could be set in variations on any of these.

My intention is to be a trifle more imaginative than that.

By the way, if this post's topic looks familiar, it should. About a month ago, I started writing about my take on fictional futures and themes. ("...Into the Future..." - Excerpt; Attitude; Comment and Theme (July 3, 2009))

Today, the topic's technology, and avoiding anachronisms.

Technology, Change, and Wood-Burning Computers

Nobody (I hope) would write about someone in the far future lighting a fire in a computer's boiler - unless there was a very good reason for using an oddly anachronistic blend of technologies. On the other hand, it's easy to forget just how much technology changes. And, sometimes, doesn't change.
"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;...
Locksley Hall, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1835)
When Tennyson wrote that, the Kitty Hawk test flight was about 68 years in the future. The poet, in all probability, imagined his "pilots of the purple twilight" to be sailing lighter-than-air ships.

Today, roughly 174 years after he "dipt into the future," we do use lighter-than-air craft for some specialized applications, but fixed-wing aircraft are the dominant air travel technology.

My point is that it's difficult - maybe impossible - to predict with any degree of accuracy what technology will be like more than a few years down the road.

Except for one thing.

It's almost certainly not going to look a whole lot like contemporary technology, or what's on the horizon: with some exceptions.
Dials and punch cards on a spaceship?
"...The dim dials had shown like blazing suns upon his tired retinas before he was able to turn his eyes away. From time to time he had looked out at the black nothing to see the silhouettes of his dials, almost-blackness against total blackness...."
The Lady Who Sailed The Soul, Cordwainer Smith (1960)
I think that's pretty good writing: but one detail jumped out at me: dials?

This story is set in the far future - about 4,000 years from now, given some reasonable guesstimates about the timeline Cordwainer Smith developed.1

A few pages later, we get another look at astronautical technology of the 60th (or thereabouts) century:
"...She broke out a repair robot and sent it out to effect repairs, punching out the papers as rapidly as she could to give instructions...."
The Lady Who Sailed The Soul, Cordwainer Smith (1960)
About a quarter-century after that story was written, I earned about half a degree in computer science. At that time Hollerith Cards and paper tape were the way that programs were stored. It wasn't a particularly new technology at the time: Punched cards had been used to analyze census data for the 1890 American census.

They're not all that common these days, but dials actually do make sense for readouts of cyclic data: like the hands of a clock that rotate once every minute, every hour, and every 12 hours (or, sometimes, every 24), indicating where we're at in the daily cycle.

Other sorts of data are a bit easier to read when presented as a point or points on a scale, as a pie chart, with alphanumeric characters, or as a picture or diagram. (I hope you'll trust me on that: I worked in graphic design for about a decade, and that's part of what I picked up.)

I'll accept that idea that some of the instrumentation on that interstellar spaceship used dials. But add something like Hollerith cards to the mix, and my willing suspension of disbelief had to be hauled back to the tracks and tipped back in place.

The lesson? Don't assume that technology is static. As a rule, Cordwainer Smith does a pretty good job with keeping descriptions of future tech to what the stuff does and what it looks like - with just enough of the 'how' to keep the reader convinced.

I think that's a good idea.
Sometimes Technology Doesn't Change - All That Much
Not too long ago I ran into an article that mentioned a valve that was dug up in Italy. It was, as I recall, made of brass (or was that bronze?): nothing at all unusual. The metal is in very common use, and the design was a simple, effective one that's been common for years. The valve was 'obviously' something fairly contemporary.

Until an someone noticed that it was the wrong size. Long story made short, the valve was of Roman manufacture, and somewhere in the dozen-plus centuries that had passed since a plumber had installed it, standard sizes for valves had changed.

Technology Will Change - People, Not So Much

Although I'm pretty sure that we'll continue to add technological enhancements and implants to our basic design, like reading glasses and pacemakers, there won't be all that much change to what human beings are for the next thousand years or so. Not successful change, at least. I'm pretty sure that from time to time someone will get the bright idea of improving on the basic design. But that's another topic.

Technology, I think, will continue to be something used by human beings. That puts some very definite constraints on one part of future tech: the interface. We've already gotten to the point where our telephones are about as small as they can be, and still have buttons that (many) people can push. They'll probably get thinner, but I think we've got the keyboard down to a minimum size.

I'll admit to a bias. I have a little trouble with some of the smaller keyboards today: but my daughters don't. (Note: Human beings come in two basic models, which is yet another topic.)

So, my guess is that fifteen or so centuries from now the analog of a computer keyboard might be a bit of open space where you'd use some sort of sign language, and the analog of television might be data loaded into your sensory cortices. Whether it's a 'pay per view,' a government service (or requirement), or something else would depend of what sort of society is envisioned.

But the bathroom plumbing? My guess is that Julius Caesar wouldn't have any trouble using it - although his plumber might understand it a bit better.

  • "The Best of Cordwainer Smith"
    Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by J. J. Pierce
    © 1975 Nelson Doubleday, Inc., Garden City, New York

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