Saturday, April 13, 2013

If it weren't for Star Trek, I might not be yelling at my computer.

Because it's usually disguised as the present, it's easy to forget that we live in the future. Every now and then when I encounter a new unexpected piece of technology conveniently replacing a simple task, I'm momentarily reminded of this: Doors that open when you walk near them. Lights that turn on in a room when you walk into it. Locks are controlled by digital keypads. You can enter, use, and leave the washroom without touching anything but the toilet seat and the stream of water and soap. Many of these technologies have been around for a long time on an industrial scale, but they're now readily accessible on a consumer scale too.

And then, every now and then when the technology breaks down, I forget it again. It's easy to not contemplate the future when you're preoccupied with trying to simply open a door or turn on a light. Silly RG, they don't yell at technology in the future!

Other things from science fiction programs of yore are also available: modern PDAs, tablets and laptops far outpace anything Star Trek imagined in their respective form factors, and the combinations of things you can do with them have tremendous potential. Skype and FaceTime let you have live video conversations on demand with ease, and you don't have to have a console monkey in the room to put it up on the screen for you (I presume; I don't like user-facing webcams myself).

Even the famed communicator, which lets Captain Picard reach anyone he likes by tapping a button on his chest, is here: Apple iPhone 5 users have their very powerful and quasi-sentient "Siri". I don't use an iPhone, but I've had this function on my Blackberry for as long as I've owned one: I simply press and hold the button on my headset and tell it a phone number or the name of one of my contacts. My old Nokia brick phone prior to that even let me record up to 20 sound bites to associate with voice-dialing contacts.

I even rented a car recently which didn't have a key. There was just a fob I had to carry around, and the car knew I was near it and unlocked the doors for me. It knew I was inside the car to enable the "start" button that I pressed to start the ignition. These features were so unexpected they had to be explained to me by the clerk, and it took me even longer to figure out how to turn the lights on once it got dark, long after I'd left the lot. (It'll be interesting to see scrap heaps ten years from now filled with cars where 99% of the electronics and machinery still work but an out-of-production patent-protected fingernail-size part prevents the computer from letting you turn on the steering wheel.)

But science fiction's impact on our relationship with technology does more than just drive new ideas and foster automated convenience. I think it also drives our frustrations with technology, too.

Think about it. When you think about technology on the Enterprise, you think about how it works, right? What about when it doesn't work?

There are plenty of examples of futuristic technology not working on TV, sure. But when it does break, you usually know why (even if the character might not). If the cause is not something obvious like a catastrophic power loss, it's usually something nefarious. Someone has locked a control panel, or a villain has short-circuited the turbolift, or Moriarty has reprogrammed the holodeck. Sometimes there's some energy-based lifeforce that's screwing with all the systems in the ship that only creates the subtlest of symptoms. And even then, the characters usually have a workaround readily available, because unlike your journey through the doorway, the TV plot must go on.

How often have you watched science fiction and something went wrong for unknown, unexplained, and relatively benign reasons? In other words, because it simply isn't working properly? Not often, I'd say. There's no such thing as an idiopathic TV tech malfunction; everything happens for a reason—usually a malicious reason—and if you don't know already what that reason is when the character encounters the problem, you'll probably find out by the end of the episode.

So then think about your own experiences with technology. I, for one, couldn't tell you how many times in a week I go to do something with a computer, or my phone, or some other gadget, and it refuses to behave itself. I know how it's supposed to work and I've gotten it to work a hundred times before, but it won't do it this time. I spend hours trying to figure out what the problem is, trying workarounds, reinstalling things, only to eventually give up.

It still has power and is configured the same as when I last used it. It's responding to all my other commands. But it's not doing this one thing that I want it to do now. There must be a reason for the holdup, a malicious force at play, I just haven't figured out what force that is. I know there must be something because that's what I'm trained to believe by years of watching science fiction TV. Well, nobody else has been using my computer, and there are no supernatural forces at play.

Therefore it's the computer itself that must be the malicious actor trying to keep me from doing what I want. Occasionally one can blame the manufacturer or software designer, but neither of them are in the room and it's hard to curse at someone when you don't know their name. It's convenient enough, on the other hand, to blame the computer. All the other variables are controlled, which leaves the computer as the only thing that can change what's happening with my computer.

So after a frustrating few hours, wasted, trying to get my futuristic gadgets to perform my benign chores, I forget that we "live in the future". I forget that breakdowns of technology are only malicious on TV for plot reasons.

And I forget that people in the future don't yell at their computers.

- RG>


Allison said...

Great post.
Have you seen Firefly? There's an episode about what happens when one stupid little part breaks for no reason other than it's worn out and you're stranded in space with no ability to fix or replace it. Good stuff.

RealGrouchy said...

It's on my list of things to watch after I retire...

- RG>

Lynn said...

Loved this post. Brilliantly said. And I echo what Allison said about Firefly - I'd forgotten about that episode but she's right, it's exactly about a stupid part breaking for no good reason.