B-List Holy Grails

Films like Tron have a lot to answer for … Children see these worlds, and the men and women they become try to build them.

Will Wiles posting on Spillway

For most of my life the videophone was telecom’s holy grail, & now? Just another of the Net’s many afterthoughts, & a B‑teamer at that..

Julian Dibbell, on Twitter

Chess at the Dolphin
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jana Mills

Julian is right. When it was on its way video-conferencing felt very futuristic but then it got here and failed to take hold.

Which got me thinking. What other synecdoches for the future turned out to be duds on arrival? What other advances drove our imagination, only to fall short of where we thought they might lead? Two leapt to mind.

Chess-playing computers. People have been trying to make machines that play chess since 1769. Cybernetic pioneer Norbert Wiener and computer pioneer Alan Turing each devoted time to the problem. It was seen as an important branch of AI research. And then Deep Blue beat Kasparov and now Deep Fritz’ win against Kramnik is barely mentioned in Wikipedia. And we still don’t have talking robots.

Orbital space stations. The docking scene in 2001 is how the film tells you that it’s an advanced future. Well, we’ve had people in space continuously for 9 years. This has had far less impact on your life than one might have hoped.

A Contest

So I ran a micrononfiction contest. 100-word-or-less nominations for miracles that didn’t quite make it. There were prizes and everything.

The Results

In the waning days of 2009, Julian Dibbell mentioned videophones as a holy grail technology that ended up being a b‑teamer. I liked the concept so much that I ran a contest on Quiet Babylon, looking for more instances.

The entries were fantastic and after a long and occasionally contentious dinner-meeting with my gracious panel of judges, it’s time to announce the results. I’d like to thank Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics and Project Wonderful and street artist Poster Child for their time and insight.

Beyond the winners, there were 8 short-list finalists.

Diversity prize: Weather Control

WEATHER CONTROL In 1845, it was suggested that a continental meridian of fire—six hundred miles of prairie burning from North to South—could settle weather over the eastern half of the continent. A few years later, Congress considered ordering a great dike built athwart the Gulf Stream in order to gentle seaboard climes. The twentieth century brought cloud-seeding cannon—used most recently in China, where the Army fired silver iodide into clouds during the 2008 Olympics. As holy grails go, this may be the supremely ironic one: while we cannot control the weather, our influence over the climate may be our downfall.

Matthew Battles is the coeditor of hilobrow.com who writes about language, literature, and technology for a variety of publications in print and online.

Really loved this one, and the parallel between wanting to control the weather and ending up with the climate change we’ve got today. I still hope that, one day, I’ll be able to say how it’s too bad the Post Office isn’t a efficient as the Weather Service.

A lot of science fiction cautionary tales are about how attempts to build a controlling technology backfire and we are overwhelmed by the very thing we sought to master: I’m thinking of killer robots, Jurassic Park, and so on. In the science fiction version of the weather control story, those six hundred miles of prairie fire interact with the great dike resulting in thousands of tornados and permanent drought. As Matthew points out, the real story is much more terrifying.

Poster Child:
Further Irony: We are actually seeding clouds 24/7 as a by-product of air travel. If air travel by jet stops as a result of dwindling jet fuel — losing all that artificial man-made cloud cover may further exacerbate our climate woes.

Grand Prize: Voice Recognition

No luck Fir tree could have been more well come than voice wreck ignition. The eyed yeah that one could control their tipi, con pewter, or even author mobile with a quick Spokane commando was an inversion in futuristic dither furniture; Shirley not every séance fiction right her would-be rung. However, none cold fours sea the the faculties present in trains lathing human speech tooth next. In tend, voice recon it shunt to kits place beside other trot shuck failure soft heck anthology, whore gotten at eels to for the in mediate future.

Written by Robert Ewing of Laughing at Nothing, a group of filmmakers so vagrant that they don’t even have a website right now.

Poster Child:
This is so well written- If only my 5th grade teacher could be as accepting as I am of the absurdist styles of an essay written via voice recognition software, I’d be a much happier 5th grader. I was so sure that we have this sorted by the time I was an adult, but I’m still waiting.

Okay, I was the dissenting voice here, mainly because I’ve got a degree in Computational Linguistics, so I am just TOO CLOSE to the problem. The entry was really well-crafted, and the point that voice recognition isn’t really there yet is a good one! But I think it’s a little unfair because voice recognition is a new technology, and nobody is pointing to it and saying “There! FINISHED.” It’s young, it’s new, and there’s still lots of challenges left to overcome before we’ll be able to chat up our robot palls.

But then the other judges told me the entry was awesome and I was making excuses for the entire field and I thought, okay, maybe, but let’s see you analyze waveforms to statistically find word-boundaries, and then use n‑gram processing to figure out the most likely series of words, using that predicatively on the candidate word form currently being processed.

And then I was like, man, I’m a cartoonist now.

Anyway, a great entry!

As you can tell, there was some controversy over the selection of this entry. Ryan wanted to argue that the tech isn’t there yet but Dragon Naturally Speaking is at version 10 and many companies have used voice-control in their phone labyrinths for years. For a technology that Ryan wants to say is not ready for primetime it sure is widely available commercially. This is what makes it so disappointing. The tech is plainly not done, but there’s a group of people with order forms saying “There! FINISHED,” ready to take your money.

Leaving aside the squabbles of the panel, for me what put this entry over the top was the sheer excellence of the “show, don’t tell” writing.

The Honourable Mentions

The wristwatch/phone hybrid used to be the way forward. Now it’d be considered clunky or annoying to use – either a case of too much bulk or no room for buttons – and associated with all sorts of bizarre RSI. The delicious irony is that today most people use mobile phones to tell the time.

Written by: Andrey Pissantchev

Poster Child:
Exactly! I don’t think it’s so much a failure as us realizing we’d rather not have a phone strapped to our wrist. Look at it another way- a cell phone is really a pocket watch converged with a phone. And a camera. And a calendar. And a datebook. And a rolodex.

I’m disappointed that we don’t have these too! But, as the author points out, we have the same functionality, it’s just added to the phone rather than the wristwatch.

I used to coach debating full time, which meant a lot of staring at a coundown to check speech length. I took my watch off so often that I started just carrying it in my pocket. Then I got a phone with a timer function. I don’t have a wristphone, but I do have a pocketwatchphone.

Email lets you communicate instantly, anywhere in the world. Sounds pretty awesome, right? Unfortunately, no. In practice, 97% of my email is Nigerians trying to sell me boner pills, and the rest is from my boss.

Loved the way of casting email to “talk to anyone in the world – FOR FREE!”, which is something we often forget. My first FreeNet email address ([email protected], baby!) (it doesn’t work anymore) was something really exciting, and I remember the thrill of getting an email message was the same as getting a real message. But email quickly became routine, and now I have so much spam coming in that I have a custom-trained neural network sort it for me before I even look at it. That’s pretty futuristic too, I think!

I was the least enthused about this entry, in that I don’t really remember this being a big thing that being reached for. Radio and then phones had gotten us pretty used to the idea of talking to anywhere in the world. I’ve since gone on an IRC nostalgia trip and so would like to revise my opinion somewhat.

Poster Child:
True enough. But email is still pretty damn awesome in my books. It’s how I do 99% of my non-face-to-face communicating, so you get a big thumbs up from me, email!

Monorail Haiku

What would the world be
with no Monorail? Pretty much
like it is right now.

Written by: Lori Priebe

‘Cept for Disneyworld! I think? I’ve never been there but I think the monorail is kind of a big deal there. But I took off points because some maglev trains run on a single rail too and those are way futuristic. They float on a cushion of MAGNETS.

Poster Child:
Monorails are a
great visual cue of the
Future we wanted

Aside from one entry that consisted of a brand name and nothing else, Lori had the shortest entry. This is to be admired.

Monorails. If Disneyland and assorted futuristic movies created any expectations, it was that I would glide into adulthood on these silent, electric conveyances. No one really believed in flying cars, but the monorail… it always seemed just around the corner; the way we’d all inevitably get to work in the far future of 2000. And now, the monorail is reality! Thousands of people use it every day! Electronic voices remind us to stand clear of the closing doors… as we race from our flight in Terminal A to our connection in Terminal D. I had hoped for more, somehow.

Written by MsMolly

Poster Child:
A subway is lame too, with only two stations. Clearly, we need MORE monorails!!

My favourite monorail is the one in Seattle from the World’s Fair. Today it is so dented and beat up looking, it’s a vision of a future that came and went, but never really escaped from the unreality bubble of exibition shows.

This was my favourite of the monorails entries, because we can all sympathize with the AWESOMENESS of hearing that there’s a robot train at the airport, and the disappointment of getting there and it being totally weak. It would at least be something if they addressed you by name, but no, no, they don’t even do that.

MiniDiscs: It has been a near-universal of science fiction for the storage media of the future to be sexy, smaller versions of our current ones. But, when miniature discs finally arrived… in fact, I don’t recall even noticing their arrival. But some guy I knew did get a MiniDisc player, right around when iPods began to take over the world. He would burn a little playlist onto each one, and carry them all in differently coloured little mini-cases. It was immediately obvious to anyone other than him what a fantastically useless piece of technology this was compared to the now-ubiquitous MP3 player.

Written by: David Rusak

I was slow to come around to this one, but then I remembered every hacker movie from the 80s and 90s (even The Matrix).

I liked this one, but I thought it was maybe too precise. The future is often today made either bigger or smaller, and I’ve seen movies in which the future was either giant laserdiscs-sized CDs or tiny tiny CDs – effectively, a MiniDisc. I also knew a guy who was big into MiniDiscs! I think he has an iPod now. JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE

Poster Child:
As minds trapped in the present, we always make the mistake of imagining the future to be like the present refined. The future is more about game changers.

When I was a kid, lasers were these unimaginably powerful devices that would one day be used to bore tunnels through mountains. Instead, we use them to watch DVDs and irritate cats.

Written by: Tree Lobsters

Poster Child:
Lasers- a way to tire your dog out in the backyard from the comfort of your living room window.

I really liked this one! But then I thought, we’re using lasers to adjust the shape of our freakin’ EYEBALLS, so they did end up being a little futuristic after all.

To this day, the military has not given up on laser weapons.

A technology can be as much a gadget or gizmo as it can be a change in systemic behaviour. In that regard, I would suggest that the condensing & specialization of work resulting in push-button jobs like George Jetson’s promised an easing of the harshness of labor. Yet, they simply fill a man top-full and brimming with ennui & alienation. I have worked jobs where I did nothing more than push a button every few minutes, and it is nowhere near as pleasant as I thought it would be.

Written by: Brandon L. Keene

A great entry, but I couldn’t think of very many jobs that were actually push-button jobs. There’s tons of data entry jobs, and keyboards are a SERIES of buttons, but that’s not really the Jetson’s future we’re talking about. There are factory-line jobs where your only task is to be a pair of human eyes, knocking bad items off the line — that’s pretty close, I guess! It just needs a big red button and a robot maid and we are THERE.

Poster Child:
I’ve never had a “push button” job, but I can imagine that it’s not a lot of fun. Many of my crappier jobs could be described as pushing a series of buttons, in particular orders. Still not fun. How much complexity to we need for job satisfaction?

Lest you dismiss the judges’ comments as signs that they are hopelessly out of touch with the plight of the working person, let me point out that even in the Jetsons, the push button job was played for laughs, in that George HATED his job. And who can blame him?

Blue Monday, Abolished
In the late 19th century, laundry remained the most backbreaking household chore. Utopian feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman envisioned and established cooperative households where communal kitchens, daycares and laundries would free women from drudgery, leading to economic equality and the Seneca Falls goal of “true and substantial happiness.” But laundry mechanization participated in the more-work-for-mother paradox: new cheap clothes needed more and more frequent washing. Unlike cooking and childcare, which have mostly left the home, laundry remains a laborious individual responsibility. We’ve ditched the mangle and invented the self-service laundromat, but we are not liberated from laundry.

Written by: Suzanne Fischer

Poster Child:
I really like this one, as we forget how onerous a chore laundry was until rather recently- but while automated laundry hasn’t lead to the sweeping social change people from the past predicted, it’s still completely awesome. Bring someone from the past forward to today and they might not be so impressed with some of the things on this list (buggy-assed voice recognition? laser pointers?) but show them laundry machines and they’ll say “Two please!”

The only issue with this one is that if you showed someone 200 years ago a laundry machine from today, they’d still say “Forsooth, verily, that be rad” and want one — they’re not perfect, but they’re still a huge improvement over washboards. But yeah, laundry sucks!

Here’s why this entry is so great: like videoconferencing, the technology is here and it operates pretty much exactly as promised. And like videoconferencing, it failed to substantially transform the society around in the way we expected. The machines didn’t make our lives easier, they made the lives of the people selling clothes easier.