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All tomorrow’s Jetpacks

I wrote this back in April 2012, when Google Glass was first announced. I wasn’t convinced at all, and the short film they released at that time to explain the Glass experience was a big part of why. I found this piece again by accident recently, and realised it’s probably worth publishing. Not quite sure why I didn’t at the time!

Most people will know of the Jetsons, even if far fewer are likely to have seen it, and fewer still watched it regularly as a kid, as I did (showing my age) (OK, the reruns, not the original 1962/3 runs, I’m not that old.).

It was by accounts the first program ever to be broadcast in color on ABC-TV. But that’s really where its genuine futurism kind of ends [1].

Because like almost all futurism, the Jetson’s future is actually the world of 1962, the year it first ran, fast forwarded 1000 years, with shiney space suits, robot maids, and flying cars (none of which we have), but no real social changes. George and Jane, the parents, had their children when 18 and 17 respectively (missing the subsequent shift to people starting their families much later in life). George, the father, is the sole bread winner. Jane (introduced to us in the opening titles literally as ‘his bride’) can’t even drive (fly?), is apallingly bad when she tries to learn, and is seen in the opening titles snatching George’s wallet and shopping. Of course she’s also wise where he is a bit of an idiot. There’s more than a little of the Jetsons in the Simpsons. Not simply the last 4 letters of their name.

In 2062, humanity has invented artificial intelligence, and autonomous robots. And yet they we deploy these technologies as domestic servants (in fact maids, literally).

But the Jetsons is far from alone in getting the future wrong. We humans are excellent at doing so. When we try to predict the future, it seems this is almost invariably what we do. I vividly recall a student of mine, many years ago, imagining a future of voice activated computing: “computer, open the C drive”. Again, a world unchanged by the introduction of something profoundly new (as you’ll see in a moment, I’ve long been skeptical about the value or success of voice interfaces).

Jetpack futurism (a term that occurs precisely once on the web according to Google, but one I’ve been using for a long time to describe wrongly imagined futures) typically imagines a future of

  1. personal jetpacks
  2. flying cars
  3. holidays in space
  4. permanent lunar colonies
  5. video calling (which ok we now have with Skype, and Facetime, and … but are they much more than a novelty? Do tyou use video when you Skype? Or just audio?)
  6. And likewise voice driven interfaces (perhaps Siri will be more than just a novelty one day, but I expect not the voice interface aspect).

Which brings me to this weeks Jetpack futurism, Google’s Project Glass. Why not take a look at the video if you haven’t yet, or lately. I’ll wait.

Notice anything I just listed?

It has all the hallmarks of classic Jetpack Futurism: It’s today, all the way down to each and every app we use (weather, IM, Calendar) presented using UI metaphors we are all familiar with from the original Mac OS, just with a new gadget (oh, and a voice driven interface). Is there a single new application enabled by these glasses that we couldn’t have running on our phones?

And despite its grab for novelty, it is plain dumb.

I mean, if the device/network/app doesn’t know the guy has walked the route to work 1000 times (about 4 blocks, and after eating that breakfast, shouldn’t the device/network/app know the guy could use a walk?), it’s pretty dumb. When someone reminds us of the obvious, are we not annoyed? So when these glasses tell us the way to walk to work, that it must know we know intimately, how annoying would that be? In the intro blurb for glasses, Google claims they “believe technology should work for you — to be there when you need it and get out of your way when you don’t.” Reminding me of the four blocks route to walk to work is far from getting out of the way.

Surely all that extraneous information is going to have the glasses pretty damn quickly gathering dust alongside his Aibo, and his moth eaten global hyper color (look it up) t-shirts.

Because none of the problems it solves aren’t problems we can already imagine (and which mostly we already have pretty good solutions for).
In book stores we have signage. And if we asked for the music section, we’d likely be told “we don’t sell music” or be directed to the area where they sell CDs (which of course basically no one does anymore anyway).

When someone who has a pair of google glasses needs walking instructions, they’ve already got a smart phone.

Indeed it’s a curiously retro world, with bookstores (that sell CDs!) and voice activation (another classic trope of jetpack futurism – widespread adoption of vice activation as we wander down the street? Right.) And of course video calling. A staple of jetpack futurism since the world’s fair of 1939 (which indeed kind of invented the future of jetpacks, driving cars, and, well, you know, Google).

The one possibly futuristic feature is the seemingly unheralded announcement of the proximity of friends. Which I suspect will help folks better avoid people they don’t want to bump into than go out of their way to serendipitously meet.

So, why do we get the future so wrong? Because, just as the past is another country, so too logically the future must be. And it is different because of the introduction of technology. So when we imagine the future of Flying cars, we are imagining a future without airlines and airports, perhaps even without immigration laws. What does the world look like not when we can get to work 10 minutes more quickly, but when there is no traffic in our streets, and we can cheaply fly anywhere on earth in a few hours?

It’s the side effects, the unforeseen consequences, the unknown unknowns of technology which make the future different. And we can only guess at that these might be.

[1] in a way, that’s unfair, as will be apparent from watching this short documentary about the Jetsons, featuring Hannah and Barbera talking about the show. What they did well was imagine some of the technologies which might make a presence in our lives (treadmills, video conferencing, travelators). What exemplifies the “jetpack” nature of their futurism is that these all these new technologies apparently have no impact on social structure, economics, culture, indeed civilisation.

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Going to #wds18 has given me inspiration to attend more conferences. Meeting tech folks like myself and learning from each other is pretty amazing!

Hinesh Patel Ruby and React Developer

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