Get Smart

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


CD ROM

CD ROM
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $125-$1000/1989 ($200-$1600/2007) per disc, $600-$800/1989 ($1000-$1300/2007) for drive unit

"If looking things up is a big part of your life, here's some happy news--CD ROM!" Great, now I gotta look up "CD ROM". Apparently it's "a five-inch silvery circle that stands to revolutionize our libraries."

This is one of my favorite Future Stuff entries for the way it evokes both the actual future and the 1989 vision of the future. CD-ROMs were revolutionary because they were cheap to produce, yet held far more than you could fit on an expensive hard drive. This has never happened since. For the first time, huge amounts of indexed data could be sold to end-users. The catchphrase at the time was "information at your fingertips", and Bill Gates was the wise man who would guarantee it to all. Future Stuff rhapsodizes about dictionaries and encyclopedias ayFTs, all of which happened and lasted until it became easier to keep the reference material on a server and expose the index through the web.

The flip side of IayFTs is that a short-lived industry sprang up around filing this enormous prairie of CD-ROM space with stuff that was just weird. I'm not just talking about the shovelware CDs hosted on BBSes across the world (including mine), but about the much larger "multimedia" industry, which was about the most 90s thing you can imagine. People spent a lot of money producing full-motion video, voice-acted games and edutaimnent that today is no fun, looks awful, and often seems to have no point. For the benefit of future future-historians, let me state that the point was: "multimedia!"


Electronic Book

Electronic Book
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $12/1989 ($19/2007) for 500 texts, $15000/1989 ($25000/2007) for viewer unit

"Do you love cozying up with a good book? Well, try cozying up with five hundred at a time!" Gah! Buried... in books! Can't breathe! Ultimately...my obsessions... hurt only myseeeeeeelf

Hello, I'm Leonard's force-grown clone and I'm here to complete this entry. "This is the electronic book," lies Future Stuff, which is just an ordinary book. It then goes on to describe the electronic book as a "small computer unit with a detachable display panel" and a "touch-sensitive screen"--no keyboard. The books are loaded on CDs ("500 manuscripts" on each).

Oh, and look who shows up: "Judy Bolger of the Massachusetts company marketing the first model, called DynaBook." It's the DynaBook! Future Stuff didn't invent the tablet computer: they talked to the people who did.

There are electronic book readers now, and they cost significantly less than 25 thousand dollars, though the books themselves usually cost more than four cents apiece. It's interesting to look at the predicted business model. You'll buy CDs containing the complete works of your favorite authors. Ripping, mixing, and/or burning? Fugeddaboudit: "The cost of making your own disk could be as much as $1500/1989 [$2500/2007]." Today, the business model is usually... to sell electronic copies at the same price as paper copies but encumber them with all sorts of rules about what you can do with them. It's a plan that works great on paper, but unfortunately, paper is the one thing that's not involved here.

Indeed, it's clear that e-book readers will never replace the paper book, even if they start looking exactly like paper books that happen to contain thousands of texts. This is because people who write about whether or not that will happen fetishize books as physical objects. We sniff the paper like a salaryman taking a whiff of a schoolgirl's used panties. We romanticize the act of taking a crap because you can do it while holding a book. Just look at the previous incarnation of myself! He died in a bizarre act of autoerotic asphyxiation, a martyr to bibliophilia. In conclusion, paper books are magic.


Large-Capacity Smart Cards

Large-Capacity Smart Cards
Odds 100%
Year 1993
Cost $300/1989 ($500/2007) for reader, $200/1989 ($330/2007) per blank card

"Large-capacity Smart Cards are the real future in information storage." Hey, thanks for wasting my time telling me about CD-ROM and camera memory cards! What's described is something very similar to today's USB keys (price about $20/2007), except with a credit-card form factor. Jerome Svigals of Smart Cards fame shows up, which is why these are Smart Cards even though we don't call floppy disks or CD-ROMs "smart". The Smart Cards will be read with a special reader, which sounds very Neuromancer.

Future Stuff makes a big deal of how CD-ROMs are limited by being read-only. An interesting lesser thing not predicted by FS is that in many cases that wouldn't matter. CD-ROMs and DVDs are commonly used to archive things you can't or don't want to change: movies, songs, historical documents, data backups. That's probably most of what you need to move to external storage.

Bizarre statement: "You'll still need a personal computer at a cost of several thousand dollars." What's going to manipulate all that data if not a personal computer? Maybe Future Stuff's audience was hoping for a super-VCR or something; this was before people thought of the computer as a general-purpose device.


The Write-Top Computer

The Write-Top Computer
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $3000/1989 ($5000/2007)

"It looks like an Etch A Sketch... but kids beware. The Write Top's no toy." Oh no! Little Timmy was playing too close to the Write Top and it DEVOURED HIS SOUL! Fortunately, by 1993 non-devouring models will be available.

Instead of a keyboard, "the writer [neé user] 'writes' with a stylus (a mechanical pen) that produces 'electronic ink.'" Somewhere in that thicket of scare quotes is a product! Some blend of today's tablet PC and yesterday's Newton ("The user makes notes, then pushes a button to transform his handwriting into print.")

The manufacturer is Linus Technolgogies, and thanks to old-computer nerds you can see the Write Top's vital statistics. Production count: "About 4000 built, 2000 shipped, rest destroyed." Poor little guys! Brooks Puckett, quoted in this Future Stuff entry, now apparently works for i2 Inc, a nicely creepy government contractor.


Electronic Newspaper

Electronic Newspaper
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost $125/1989 ($210/2007) one-time fee

"Imagine reading all the newspapers in the world and not getting a smidgen of ink on your fingers." Yes, the comics boom of the 90s produced some pretty bottom-of-the-barrel superheroes. Uh, electronic newspaper. Another old futurism staple, though of course no real staples are in play.

Today we have electronic newspaper in abundance. For instance, we have many New York Times articles from the same era as Future Stuff, talking about the same products. And that's just the archive; every day new stuff is made available, often before it hits the paper edition. Of course, this isn't one big system like Fen Labalm's NewsPeek. It's a distributed web in which every newspaper buys influence by putting their stories online. Readers aggregate stories from newspapers, magazines, independent journalists, and random people with opinions.

That brings me to the main advantage Future Stuff sees in the electronic newspaper: the ability to only see stuff that fits your preconceptions. They don't present it that way; for them it's all about avoiding coverage of Sylvester Stallone and his inevitable "Rambo XII". But that's the effect. This phenomenon is enjoyable, but it needs to be counterbalanced.

Interesting details about the initial implementation of NewsPeek by the X*Press company. Their mainframe grabs data from wire feeds (including the Soviet Union's Tass, which is still around) and "sends them out in a unified form to cable systems around the country." That's the early-90s information superhighway, all right!

"X*Press offers everything from worldwide instant news coverage to soap-opera updates and horoscopes. Everything... but the comics!" Now that computers have graphic capabilities, we have the comics too.


The Idea Salon

The Idea Salon
Odds 80%
Year 1998
Cost $500/1989 ($820/2007) per idea

Dr. John Dickey has invented the nebulous The Idea Machine. I really don't know if it's a real machine or a process or a piece of software or just an alternate name for The Idea Salon at Virginia Polytechnic, which itself might just be part of Dickey's consulting business IdeaPlex.

"TIM utilizes [sic] printed, visual, audio, and aromatic (would you believe an odor compact disc!) information in the fields of science, art, music, religion, physics, engineering, sociology, and business. All are intended to trigger your creativity."

There's also a six-step procedure which I'll spare you, except for the all-important final step: "a report is produced on a desktop publishing system." It looks like a combination of brainstorming, free association (thus the odor CD), and idea culling.

How well does it work? "[W]hen asked, 'If you ran a railroad, what would you do with all the used railroad ties?' TIM triggered ideas that ranged from building insect-proof structures to having a Railroad Tie Festival." So it ranges from the semi-practical to something a presidential candidate might suggest during a whistle stop in a dying rural town.


The "Smarts" Chair

The "Smarts" Chair
Odds 90%
Year 1991
Cost $280/1989 ($460/2007) per month for home use

Starts with a full paragraph of hype. Then introduces the infamous Yoshiro NakaMats, 2005 Ig Nobel recipient, and a man against whom I have something of a longstanding grudge. NakaMats styles himself as one of the world's great inventors, but his idea of a good day's inventing seems to be to come up with a huge number of ideas and then claim credit for any of the ones that turn out to be useful (eg. floppy disk).

Dr. NakaMats seems content to sit on and occasionally license his patents, and does little to turn his inventions into real products—unless he can use them on himself to help him invent more things. Thus his Yummy Nutri Brain Food and this topic's entry, the Cerebrex Chair. It's designed to send low-frequency waves into your feet and make blood rush to your head. I wouldn't be surprised if this kind of therapy did help Dr. NakaMats a lot, since his normal M.O. is to asphyxiate himself to the point of death to force an idea. That's one trick they don't use at The Idea Salon!

With typical flair NakaMats "vows he would discard all his other inventions before ridding himself of his futuristic chair and the Brain Revolution Program he has designed to go along with it." Not surprising, considering its many benefits: "erase fatige, help you think better, prevent senility, and increase memory, sexual potency, and creativity."

Oh, he's also invented a device for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, useful for stocking a hydrogen fuel cell. Great, except people think he's invented an engine that runs on water (he just uses it to claim inventorship of the fuel cell). Good thing he invented it after Future Stuff, or they would have put it next to the Water-Powered Battery.

Uh, if you want to know more about Cerebrex, NakaMats talks about it on his site.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Friday, November 28 2014, 11:00:52 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2014 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Document tree:

http://www.crummy.com/
writing/
TheFuture/
Get Smart.html
Site Search: