A generation ago, when science fiction writers would envision the future, they’d see a world filled with robots, ray guns and rocket ships. Influenced by their stories, I used to imagine that by the turn of the century, I’d be flying around with a jet-pack strapped to my back and a deadly ray gun holstered to my thigh.
My childhood fantasies about the future ran into reality last week at Comdex, the gigantic computer trade show at the Georgia World Congress Center.
More than 100,000 people came to show off and learn about the latest high-tech gadgets.
As it turns out, most midcentury writers didn’t have a clue about what technology was coming. Sci-fi writers were fixated on weapons and rockets. Meanwhile, the real futurists were building communications devices to allow humans to share information. I supposed at age 10, I would’ve been more interested in reading about robots roaming the Earth with ray-beam eyes than in computers. I realize the authors did have to sell their books. Still, it’s amazing how far off they were about the future.
Today, we have lots of robots, but rather than prowling the planet, they are standing on assembly lines doing repetitive work with great precision. And we do have weapons that use laser beams, and rockets that roar into outer space.
But these things don’t have much impact on our daily activities. The gadgets transforming our lives involve communications. We are using computers, pagers, cell phones, faxes and other devices to improve our ability to connect with each other. Overwhelmingly, the devices featured at Comdex were designed to help people communicate.
These gizmos aren’t just for the rich. Teenagers routinely wear beepers so their parents can contact them quickly. Many mothers wouldn’t think of leaving the house without a cell phone, just in case the car breaks down or one of the kids has an emergency. Brothers who rarely talk on the phone now use e-mail to chat frequently.
In metro Atlanta, about two out of three households have personal computers. And most computer owners use a modem to connect with other users. The number of households with ray guns remains statistically insignificant.
To the degree that midcentury futurists did consider the development of communications devices, they tended to envision tools for government spying. Big Brother was going to have an electronic eye hidden behind every mirror.
But while the government has yet to implant a transmitter in my brain or a camera in my potted plants, companies are making great advances in the use of communication devices. Last week, at a Delta Air Lines ticket office, I was profoundly impressed by one of these new tools - an electronic kiosk for booking flights.
I assumed the screen on the kiosk would list flight schedules and then give me a bunch of confusing commands for typing in an order. To my astonishment, a friendly face suddenly appeared on the video screen. A ticket agent smiled and said she could see me through a camera in the kiosk. And so we talked.
Amazing. I told her what I needed and she booked the flights. She asked me to swipe my credit card through a slot. I was issued an electronic ticket, which means I don’t have to worry about losing a paper ticket. When I get to the airport next month, I’ll just flash my driver’s license to get a boarding pass.
I may not have a jet-pack on my back, but flying is getting easier because of new communications technology. The future has not turned out the way I expected, but that’s OK; my cell phone fits into my purse better than a ray gun anyway.