The shock of the old: still living in the 20th century

Yesterday I wrote about a day in the life of a futurist like me.  At the post’s end I wonder about the most futuristic parts of the day, and the least.

As I worked on that post, off and on during the day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something.  This morning I wanted to pick that intuition up.  Namely, it’s the way daily life in 2017 is still a very 20th-century endeavor, at least seen during that same day in the life.

"The Shock of the Old"I’m fond of David Edgerston’s phrase “the shock of the old.”  That’s from his 2007 book, where he gleefully points out the persistent of older, legacy tech during times we assume are more advanced.  One good example is the widespread use of horses and donkeys for transport during WWII, a conflict universally described as one driven by machines.

Edgerton came to mind yesterday as I drove an automobile largely unchanged since the 1980s over mid-20th-century roads (and in medieval traffic, i.e., Boston).  Intermittent cell phone service knocked me out of the 21st century repeatedly, both outside (Vermont, New Hampshire) and in certain locations within buildings.  I ate trail mix and chips recognizable from the Cold War era.  Dashboard radio crackled news and music much like it did when I was a child (born 1967).

I checked out a physical book from a century-old library, then deposited a physical check to a bank with human tellers.

The two airports I used, Boston Logan and Reagan National, acted in most ways as though it were 1985.  Cockpits largely invisible to mere passengers are more automated, yes, and service is worse.  But we’re still flying jets (mostly) along familiar flight paths, taking off from and landing on well laid runways.  TVs blared their form of mock-journalism – now that content has changed, by declining, and the format has mutated, by being more crowded, but the presentation technology remains.  People still stared at the mounted, public screens.

elevator_National Press Club

A lovely example of an industrial-age invention still in use.

This morning I walked across downtown DC to a meeting, and thought a time traveler from 1980 would largely feel at home.  There are new models of cars, but they’re mostly tweaks on Detroit’s old patterns (very few Teslas visible), and they still halt and fume through the old streets. People still walk, or push strollers.  Helicopters and airplanes occasionally move overhead.  There aren’t any jetpacks, slidewalks, personal helicopters, teleportation booths, suicide booths, or flying cars.  No Segues appeared. Smartphones are the major difference, and they are actually not too visible.

In today’s meeting an audience sits on chairs in rows, listening to speakers speaking from a podium.

And so on.  You get the idea.  It is vital for futurists – i.e., anyone thinking of what’s to come – to always bear in mind the past’s firm grip.  While we rightly identify possible changes and new arrivals, we can’t lose sight of what persists.

(previous old-shock posts: on tv ads, on election news; on the new Star Wars movie’s fiercely retro nature)

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11 Responses to The shock of the old: still living in the 20th century

  1. preverb says:

    You’ve read Nassim Taleb on futurology? His idea that rather than seeing the future in terms of adding entities to the present it should be seen in terms of subtracting from the present those practices/institutions which are too fragile to last and deciding what would be plausible replacements for them.


  2. leighahall says:

    It is interesting to see what persists. I couldn’t help but think of why things persist. They persist because we (collectively) are familiar and comfortable with them, culturally acceptable, and so on. I tend to think that change happens slowly, and cultural shifts even more so. I do think it’s interesting to think about why things persist.

  3. I recently read Wendell Berry’s “A Forest Conversation” in which he discusses the least damaging way of harvesting timber is the way the Amish employ. They still use horses to pull the logs out of the woods after they have been cut rather than dragging them using mechanical skidders which care not for what they tear up in their path. While the old methods certainly don’t allow for the removal of as much lumber in the same amount of time the care for the environment is nearly immeasurable for all the creatures and plants of the forest.

    We seem to rarely think of the actual cost when we go to the lumber yard or to the furniture store. I think I was reminded of this essay again today both by your post about the juxtaposition of the old and the new along with #45’s imposition of a 20% tariff on Canadian lumber products.

  4. Mark Rush says:

    Another interesting point about air travel… Why is it not getting faster? We have bullet trains. With the tech advancements, it still takes as much time to cross the Atlantic as it did 30 years ago.

    And the romance of air travel is just as welcoming as ever…

    • mkt42 says:

      In the case of air travel, the technology to move faster has existed for decades, with SSTs and the like. But aside from being noisy and polluting, their high speeds guzzled fuel at ruinous rates.

      I can imagine new designs reducing the noise and pollution, but unless there’s some sort of incredible technological breakthrough, the basic physics of higher speed ==> more air resistance and friction ==> high fuel consumption is continuing to make supersonic flight uneconomical.

  5. Don’t forget that some technology persists not because there’s no better replacement, but because some can’t afford, or won’t spend the money on, the better replacement. Last I checked, 5% of US Internet users are still connecting via dialup, mostly in rural areas that don’t have high-speed lines but do still have phone lines.

  6. Pingback: Where automation actually occurs | Bryan Alexander

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