The future has left the building, for now

I watched Buzz Aldrin step out of the tin, to the Moon, and start his adventure.
That seems to end here with a nice coloured “skin” for my phone.
I see those steps through a digital stream and a mass of hot burning plasma
Neatly wrapped up on a 50 inch screen in my home.

–“(The Future Was) Not As Good As the Book”, by Andy Tillison

When did the future become crappy and grey?

In the mid 70’s, my family got a station wagon with power windows. I thought that being able to raise and lower the windows with electricity was the coolest thing I ever saw. Raise the windows. Lower them. Then came VCRs, cable TV, my first modem, desktop publishing, and the web, all are innovations in communications, and not the kind of innovations that would take us to Mars or former planet Pluto.

I’m not the sort to idealize the past: Medical technology has made amazing jumps in the last few decades. I probably wouldn’t be alive at my threescore years (and counting) if I’d been born a century ago. Hearing the word “cancer” from a doctor is no longer an automatic death sentence, and we may have come close to curing AIDS. My Mom has an artificial knee joint, now a common thing. Hell, we’re getting closer to bionic arms and artificial eyes.

But we still have problems feeding people. We still have starvation in the world, people still die from lack of medical care (and because drugs aren’t cost-effective to develop), and women are subjected to “virginity exams” because the cops grabbed them from a protest line. And people still toil in factories in horrible conditions to support a standard of living in a country they will likely never see.

Open the windows, close them. With the press of a button.

Are sweatshop jobs the only thing keeping people from completely starving, or are they better than nothing at all? I have a bike that was made in China, and an iPod that was likely made there too. What possible technological development is going to make people in privileged countries feel that people in China or Egypt or India or North Korea are people just like them?

That development has already happened, and you’re on it right now–the sprawling TCP/IP network we call the Internet. It’s how I keep in touch with all but a few friends and family, it’s why I have clients in England and Central America, and how a lot of people get their news–and make news. People love it and governments are afraid of it. The U.N. recently declared internet access to be a human right. Not a good influence on societies, or a check on oppressive governments, but a basic human right.

Relating to people who live further away than we would drive for dinner is extremely powerful. If you’re in the habit of thinking how somebody else has to do things, you’re halfway towards learning that the way you happen to live isn’t the only way people do it. The internet may be a basic human right, but Walmart and SUVs certainly aren’t.

When we know someone who works in a Nike factory, even if we’ve only chatted on a web forum, will we buy cheap sneakers when we know that the guy who attaches the insoles makes an hourly wake less than the cost of a grande Stabucks? Will we buy an iPod if we knew one of the workers in the iPod factory who killed themselves?

I hope I’m wrong, but my cynical, skeptical nature tells me that we’ll opt for espresso shots and cheap earbuds for as long as we can get them.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints and draws when he can. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band.

One thought on “The future has left the building, for now

  1. absolutely, we will! It’s okay to want to appeal to people’s better judgement around feeding the hungry and clothing the poor, but until these products are available to us at a price point and quality point that equals what we are getting by knowingly supporting slave labor in 3rd world countries with our purchase, we will continue to buy their goods. Welcome to a capitalism society. Human rights have always been secondary…

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