Tuesday 8 February 2011

Having Crystal Balls

I like reading fiction set in the near future, usually the ones which are slightly dystopian where many things are the same but some have changed dramatically. I've even written one myself.

I particularly like John Spencer's three Charley Case books, set in a California towards the end of this century but written in the 1980s. The big change is that an earthquake has turned Nevada into a sea and pushed most of Los Angeles under the ocean. What remains is an island. Charley is a private detective who habitually gets into cases that are too big to handle and the books are full of one liners and written in a clipped style.

There are many things that Spencer predicts that seem reasonable: projectile weapons continue to be used but with increasing sophistication, medical systems allow resuscitation of the recently deceased assuming all the bits are still attached, huge cars running on synthetic gasoline, huge gap between rich and poor, and people living much longer.

But the reason I'm writing about this is that there are a few things that are already hilariously out of date yet with some features that we don't have. A case in point are phones. Charley is always having to beg access to people's phones. The idea of the ubiquitous telephony that we already have just didn't occur to the author.

Yet Charley's phone has a message capability that allows the other party to push him information that would otherwise require him to write it down. A potential client can push him their address without hassle. This same concept happens in Gibson's Virtual Light where flight information is pushed to the courier's phone after an initial voice call.

Now why don't we have that as part of our comms flow? Because we have segmented businesses, of course, where voice and data don't mix because the business units providing them don't mix. Because audio and RF engineering don't talk to the people making the network stack.
Computers are little bit more advanced than phones, with their name being chomped down to comp which is pretty cool. His domestic comp controls his kitchen. His friend in the police force has what sounds remarkably like a character cell terminal on his desk and habitually has to use mounds of prints outs. They even have trolleys for pushing print outs around the police station. The idea of wireless networking, tablets and on-screen reading didn't make it into this version of the future.

The reason that I'm talking about all this is to highlight how incredibly difficult it is to predict the future with any degree of accuracy. Whether we are looking at analysts projections for market size or novels doesn't matter. Many people would argue that they are both fiction anyway.

While we can generally predict what technology can do, you need to have balls of crystal to be able to predict behaviour and applications. We also have a curious tendency to overestimate the immediate effect of technology while underestimating the long-term effect. We've all seen the shape of the adoption curve, and I think it is wrong. There's a long nose and either a small drop to nothing or a huge take off when it moves into mainstream. But that's the subject for another blog post.

The only Charley Case story still in print is Quake City published by Jim Driver's wonderfully-named The Do Not Press. The cover of the first book bears no relation at all to the content. The female police officer on the front of the second book, remarkably, actually represents one of the characters although at no point is she in uniform and toting a gun.

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