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Friday, May 18, 2007

Jetpack or IM?

The mighty and clever Lauren McLaughlin (author of the delightful "The Perfect Man") writes about the future that did not arrive -- you know the one -- the one with the jetpacks -- and suggests that we are going backwards and ought to go forwards.

I expect we are always going a little of both; but interestingly I think there is a pattern of thought which obscures from us (especially where "us" = "skiffy folk") some of the ways in which the future does arrive.

Here my comment on Lauren's blog reposted:

There's a great talk on google video in which Dr. Cornelia Brunner talks about "butch" and "femme" approaches to technological development. In it she says something about a study done many years ago about what butch thinkers wanted technology to do (which was about control and speed and making things happen from afar) and what femme thinkers wanted it to do (which was about immersion, communication, and engagement).

She's too politic to say it outright, but it was clear to me from listening to her examples that in terms of accuracy of prediction, the femme future won. Thus, instead of jetpacks, we got the internet.

We may be better off.

Similarly if you compare Verne's or Wells's or Stephenson's books, as futurology, to the predictions (in 1900, about 2000) by the Ladies' Home Journal, it's striking how well the LHJ did. In broad strokes, they basically nailed it. Out of 29 predictions, only a handful are dead wrong -- most, if you squint, came true, or will soon come true.

Science fiction is traditionally a very butch genre (to the moon!) and indeed, in culture in general the butch perspective is much more natural, much easier to think about. Meanwhile the femme future keeps on rolling.

We cannot in 2007 get very far away from one another very very fast, each of us personally, so that no one can stop us. Instead we know where our friends are, all the time, even though they may be scattered about the globe, and we can carry on many simultaneous private little conversations with them, as if in whispers.

I think, given the choice of worlds they imply, I prefer IM to a jetpack.

Posted by benrosen at May 18, 2007 02:41 AM | Up to blog

Did your comment show up on Lauren's blog? I just posted a comment there, and didn't see yours.

Posted by: Ted at May 18, 2007 05:08 AM

It is awaiting moderation!

Moderation in all things, I always say.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 18, 2007 05:11 AM

The LHJ article rocked. I want one of those giant strawberries.

Posted by: Lauren McLaughlin at May 18, 2007 11:11 PM

I just watched the Cornelia Brunner video, and I disagree with your conclusions, Ben.

First of all, you say "in terms of accuracy of prediction, the femme future won." But those weren't predictions, they were desires. To a certain extent, femmes have recently gotten what they wanted from technology, in the form of cellphones and IM, while butches have not. But it's not that the butches' predictions have turned out wrong; it's that their desires are harder to satisfy, because they are technically more difficult. As I mentioned on Lauren's blog, a jetpack quickly runs up against the laws of physics (assuming that you think a jetpack actually fulfills butch desires).

As for the LHJ predictions, I think many of the ones that came true qualify as butch (aerial war machines, fast trains and ships). There may have been a rise in femme technological advances in the last decade, but when you consider the entire 20th century, many -- perhaps most -- of the technological advances fulfill butch desire.

To use your criterion of whether a technology encourages us to "get very far away from one another" as opposed to bringing us together, I think a prime example is the case of private automobiles winning out over mass transit. That victory wasn't because cars were easier to build, but because people's desire for them was greater. And that example casts a very long shadow: the American landscape of highways filled with single-passenger cars is being recreated by China, the country that may be the biggest player in the 21st century.

Come to think of it, cars are precisely an example of the "bionic," body-transcending technology that (according to Brunner) is the object of butch desire. A friend of mine once said that when she drove a car, she felt like she was transformed into a superhuman being with steel skin and capable of immense speeds. I doubt anyone feels that way riding public transit. Cars are so commonplace now that if you ask butches for their technological desires, they describe something so vastly superior that it borders on the impossible. We have fulfilled butch desire nearly to the limit of physical law.

Posted by: Ted at May 19, 2007 03:33 AM

Would it be too much to ask for IM _and_ a jet pack?

Posted by: Haddayr at May 19, 2007 10:12 PM

I think I want a T-shirt that says "Where's my Peas As Large As Beets???"

Did y'all read Charlie Stross' recent futurism thing? I thought his point about the jetpack / rocketcar future being driven by the recent actual experience of vast increases in transportation speed and/or reliability was worth taking. As was the point about how we've probably got similar tunnel vision now due to the last few decades' advances in computation and communication.

Posted by: David Moles at May 21, 2007 04:18 AM
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