Monday, January 4, 2010

2010: we should have been travelling to Jupiter by now

One of my favourite movies of the 1980's is the film 2010. It is the sequel to the classic Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey which ended with its lead character Dave Bowman uttering the words "My God, it's full of stars". If I recall right, those words were said as he approached that big black alien monolith that he, his crew, and the self-aware computer HAL-9000 were sent to investigate aboard their interplanetary space ship the U.S.S. Discovery. I've seen 2001. The novelty of space travel at the time the film was made is quite obvious in the way the minutiae of such things as the dynamics of moving in zero-g or the architecture of spacecraft and space stations were highlighted and focused on.

But 2010 was made during my time -- 1984 to be exact (another seminal year, by the way. But that's another story...) and the images that stuck included Roy Scheider's character Dr. Heywood Floyd tapping away at an Apple IIc on the beach and that tense space walk from their spacecraft Leonov to the Discovery. Presumably Dr. Floyd's using an Apple IIc in what was going to be the year of the iPhone comes from what would motivate one to drive around in a vintage Volkswagen Beetle. I dunno. Vintage cars and vintage computers? Considering I am most probably the same age today -- in 2010 -- as the character Dr. Floyd is in the fictitious 2010 of the movie, I'd say the nostalgia of using an Apple IIc that the makers of 2010 tried to evoke in that scene was spot-on (perhaps it may be no more than a product placement). But then in practice, I don't see myself lugging a CRT monitor (even the small one that comes with the IIc), the Apple IIc CPU itself, plugging all the cables and then firing it up from some sort of portable power source on the beach (the IIc was strictly AC-powered). That's a real 2010 mind at work (mine) but one also recognising the accidental foresight in a movie released in 1984 implying that Apple Computers would be at the forefront of cool 25 years later.

Funny how science fiction (at least the popular sort) more often than not gets it wrong. For one thing, much of the gadgetry in most 1980's sci-fi cinema features lots of flickering CRT screens. Blade Runner in particular had lots of them. They flickered all over the place and some even suffered faulty vertical-holds every now and then. In retrospect, you'd think flat screen devices would have been considered to be desirable pieces of technology that even 1980's sci-fi writers would envision as common fixtures in the future worlds they create. Carl Sagan had a term for this sort of myopia -- temporal chauvinism. Just as Victorian Era illustrators envisioned London of the 1940s abuzz with self-propelled vehicles that still resembled 19th Century horse-drawn coaches, we saw the turn-of-the-21st-Century human habitat as abuzz with flickering analogue video delivered by electron guns on phosphor screens. To our fascination with the future we apply a temporal chauvinism to pull it back into our comfort zones.

The future beyond 2010 -- our current future -- is likely to be one where our computing devices are even more intimately integrated into our clothing and even implanted within our bodies. Rather than have to squint at the screens of our mobile devices, we'd probably have a heads-up display built into our spectacles projecting data directly into our line of sight, a-la Terminator or, more recently, the fat humans in Wall-E (no more people looking over our shoulders at what we are doing on our mobile devices). In short, technology tends to get less conspicuous as it advances. Instead of us wearing bulky utility belts with battery packs to power the "ultramagnetic personal transcievers" strapped to our backs, today's mobile phone is tucked away out of sight in the shirt or pants pocket of the average man-on-the-street. Considering that the average 2010 city slicker routinely carries in his shirt pocket a hundred times the computing power available to the Apollo missions, he is virtually indistinguishable from his 1969 counterpart.

Indeed, visionary technology is not necessarily good showbiz. Even relatively low-tech telephony and email gets in the way of a good drama scene. Ever notice in an episode of Boston Legal or Law and Order how people take the trouble to pop into one another's offices to have a conversation? You can't have that same dramatic effect enacted with a more realistic workplace scene of people having heated email exchanges over policy disputes (though You've Got Mail somehow pulled off a romantic comedy story on this platform). Even a telephone conversation will never be as theatrically appealing as a face-to-face dialogue between two characters in a drama show.

And that is why Roy Scheider is sitting on a beach with an Apple IIc in the 1984 movie 2010, or why Dr Bones McCoy gave Captain James Kirk a pair of "late 20th Century" stainless-steel rimmed glasses as a present in Star Trek: The Movie, or why Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader would rather hack at each other with light sabers than blast away at each other from a more comfy distance with the same technology. Hi tech is bad showbiz.


  1. I really enjoyed this very smart post.

    Another good example of high tech being bad showbiz, of course, is all the wristwatches in Ben Hur.

  2. Mr London there is absolutely correct. Loving the blog but to come back again I'll have to find it! Please add a follower button and make my life easier. Too good to miss.

  3. ha ha! A cast of thousands was certainly a handful back in the pre-CGI days.

    Thanks guys!

    Melissa, you can follow blogs that do not display the "Followers" widget by clicking on the "Follow" link at the top left part of this page (next to the Search box on the top most coloured strip of most Blogger sites).

    As soon as I accumulate my target number of followers, I'll start displaying the widget. :-)

  4. Great post. What's your "target number of followers"? You're one closer.

  5. Thanks, Ms dragonfly. It's not a very ambitious target, so you'll find out soon (hopefully). :-)