Commentary

The Tricky Timing Of Being Amazed By The Future

When I was a kid, the future was a big deal. The animated TV show “The Jetsons” was introduced in 1962. We were in the thick of the space race. Science was doing amazing things. What the future might look like was the theme of fairs and exhibits around the world, including my little corner of the world in western Canada. I remember going to an exhibit about the Amazing World of Tomorrow at the Calgary Stampede when I was 7 or 8, so either in 1968 or 1969.

Walt Disney was also a big fan of the future. That’s why you have Tomorrowland at California's Disneyland and Epcot at Florida's Disneyworld. Disney said of the former, "Tomorrow can be a wonderful age. Our scientists today are opening the doors of the Space Age to achievements that will benefit our children and generations to come. The Tomorrowland attractions have been designed to give you an opportunity to participate in adventures that are a living blueprint of our future."

But the biggest problem with Tomorrowland was that the future kept becoming the present -- and, in doing so, it became no big deal. The first Tomorrowland opened in 1955, and the “future” it envisioned was 1986. From 1955 forward, Disney has continually tried to keep Tomorrowland from becoming Yesterdayland. It was an example of just how short the shelf life of “Tomorrow” actually is.

For example, in 1957, the Monsanto House of the Future was introduced in California’s Tomorrowland. The things that amazed then were microwave ovens and television remote controls. The amazement factor on these two things didn’t last very long. But even so, they lasted longer than the Viewliner – “the fastest miniature train in the world.” That Tomorrowland attraction lasted just one year.

And then there was the videophone.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, we were fascinated by idea of having a video call with someone. I remember seeing a videophone demonstrated at the fair I went to as a kid. It was probably the AT&T Picturephone, which was introduced at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  We were all suitably amazed.

But the Picturephone wasn’t really new. Bell Labs had been working on it since 1927. A large screen videophone was shown in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times.” Even with this decades-long runup, when AT&T tried to make it commercially viable in 1970, it was a dismal flop. 

The failure of the 1970s videophone just shows how fragile the timing is with trying to bring the future to today. If it’s too soon, everyone is scared to adopt it. If it’s too late, it’s boring. More than anything, our appreciation of the future comes down to a matter of luck.

Here are a few more examples. Yesterday, I got a call on my mobile when I couldn’t get to my phone, so I answered it on my Apple Watch. My father-in-law happened to be with me. “You answered the phone on your watch? Now I’ve seen everything!” He was amazed, but for me it was commonplace. Then, if we backtrack to 1946, when the comic book character Dick Tracy introduced his wrist radio, it was almost unimaginably cool. Well, it was unimaginable to everyone but inventor Al Gross, who had actually built such a device. That’s where Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, got the idea from.

And then there’s teleconferencing. Today, in our post-COVID world, Zoom meetings are the norm, even mundane. But the technology we today take for granted has been 150 years in the making. It was in the 1870’s Bell Labs (again) first came up with the idea of transmitting both an image and audio over wire, according to a TechTarget post.

In the 1950s, H.M. (research patients were usually known only by their initials) was a patient who suffered from epilepsy. He underwent an experimental surgery that removed several parts of his brain, including his entire hippocampus, which is vital for memory. In that surgery, H.M. not only lost his past, but he also became unable to imagine the future. Since then, functional MRI studies have found that the same parts of the brain are involved in both retrieving memories and in imagining the future.

In both these instances, the brain creates a scene. If it’s in the past, we relive a memory, oftenn with questionable fidelity to what actually happened. Our memories are notoriously creative at filling in gaps in our memory with things we just make up. And if it’s in the future, we prelive the scene, using what we know to build what the future might look like.

How amazing the future is to us depends on the gap between what we know and what we’re able to imagine. The bigger the gap that we’re able to manage, the more we’re amazed. But as the future becomes today, the gap narrows dramatically, and the amazement drops accordingly.

Adoption of new technologies depends in part on being able to squeeze through this rapidly narrowing window. If the window is too big, we aren’t willing to take on the risks involved. If the window is too small, there’s not enough of an advantage for us to adopt the future technology.

Even with this challenge of timing, the future is relentless. It comes to us in wave after wave, passing from being amazing to boring. In the process, we sometimes have to look back to realize how far we’ve come.

I was thinking about that and about the 7-year-old boy I was, looking at the Picturephone at the Calgary Stampede in 1968. As amazing as it seemed to me at the time, how could I possibly imagine the world I live in today, a little over a half-century later?

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