Friday, August 27, 2004

What happened to the future?

Disney World has two areas originally designed to give a glimpse of "the future", Tommorowland in Magic Kingdom and Future World at EPCOT, which itself once stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. These areas give somewhat a nostalgic view of the future from the time of my childhood but not of the future from today.

Not only has society's view of the future changed but even the view about the future has changed. We live in an era of massive changes in technology particularly in access to communication and information. In the "Spaceship Earth" ride that shows the history and future of communications, the future shows two kids seeing and playing games with each other through video monitors, a task easily accomplished today with webcam-equipped networked PCs. But the ride missed many aspects of computers and the web. Who would have thought when I was a kid that I would now be writing this post on a commuter train that soon will be read around the world.

On the other hand we also dreamed of flying cars and space planes but the technology of transportation has not significantly changed since I was born and I don't expect major changes in the next forty years. So the future has come but not quite as we expected.

Technology has made the world a more homogeneous place. When at the Norway pavilion at EPCOT, an American visitor asked a Disney worker from Norway about what the country was like to visit. "The towns are like mid-size American cities" was the reply. I guess it is a small world after all.


  1. A comment emailed from Stuart Kurtz:
    Your remark about flying cars reminding me of something I saw yesterday on Slashdot. I haven't read this closely, but from the /. summary of the Business Week article, flying cars may be closer than you think.

    In any event, an updated Future World would have to take into account climate change, the end of the fossil fuel economy (and concomitant with that a viable replacement technology -- it's harder than you think, as
    electricity is not really an option for portable/high power applications, and hydrogen doesn't have the necessary energy density). The future is not merely "more," it's qualitatively different.

  2. I have doubts that we could afford the energy required to make flying cars common. Perhaps if photovoltaic cell efficiency improved greatly, or if wind turbines could be made cheaply, we'd have the energy needed. (I'll only mention in passing that fusion is an option: I think it's unwise to assume it will bail us out of the energy recession coming in several decades.) Moreover, given teleconferencing++, there would likely be less of a need to travel so quickly. AI could control cars, or trains could be more common, and compartments in such vehicles would be as comfortable as any office or living room today. (If you think about it, cars are already very pleasurable to be in: where else can you make the temperature exactly as you want it in a matter of minutes?)

    I think a great and disturbing vision of the future can be found in The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson. He doesn't get his science right all the time, but the big picture is very fascinating. Imagine that we could take our abundant carbon and turn it into diamonds so cheaply that every window would be made of diamond, which is very strong. Similarly, materials will be so strong with nanotechnology that vaccums could be made; creating materials with the strongest form of insulation known. That means it will be easier to keep homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Distasters like what's recently happened in Florida would not harm residential or industrial infrastructure either (farms, however, would still be devastated).

    I see a future with cleaner water, better education, better medicine, and basically anything else that increases standards of living. It's not really so cool to see on an amusement park ride, but I can't wait to actually live it. Oh yeah, and I can't wait for those shiny tin foil looking clothes to come out.