Saturday, 24 September 2011

Fifty years (redux)

As a science fiction writer, I'm as equally interested in the stuff that won't change, as the stuff that will. Many of the technologies in our day to day lives are ephemeral: my camera is not the same one I had ten years ago. My television is not the same one. My main car is not the same one (although we still own one made in 1989; we just don't drive it anywhere). My kettle is not the same one. My mobile phone is not even the same one I had two years ago. My PC is nine years old, but that's because I'm freakishly uninterested in computers other than as tools to do a given job.

There are of course classes of technology that don't change very rapidly, like furniture, houses, common tools and simple appliances, as well as cheap, mass-produced consumer goods like biros and paperclips. But actual branded models of things, such as makes of cars, are perceived to have woefully short lifespans. This is something that SF seems to accept unquestioningly, with a few notable exceptions. An SF novel set 50 years in the future might refer to a "Jeep" or a "BMW" but it's implicitly not the same Jeeps or BMWs we know today - unless the author makes a point about the protagonist being a classic car enthusiast, with his lovingly tended period roadster from 2011. Bladerunner, which got so much else right, was also one of the first films to show a future in which old stuff was still hanging around - although with the fish-tailed cars, it was strangely stuff that was already quite elderly at the time the film was made.

As we slide into the second decade of the 21st century, though, it's interesting to take stock of things that not only haven't changed radically in the last few decades, but show every sign of sticking around for a few more. I'll restrict myself to two examples, both from the world of aviation. The B52 is now a very old design indeed. It's been in operational service since 1956, flying since 1952, and the program dates back to 1948. The "youngest" B52s now flying are a mere half a century old. What's interesting, to me at least, is that there is no reason for them not to keep flying for much, much longer - possibly until the middle years of this century. Granted, the operational B52s have had various bits swapped and improved over their service lives, and may yet see more changes - but they'll still be B52s, and recognisable as such to anyone who witnessed the birth of the program six decades ago.

The other example is the 747 - now well into its fifth decade - and they're still building them. Granted, the 747s we see flying around today, or perhaps even fly in ourselves, do not date back to the 1960s. But, stretched and modified as they are, they are recognisably the same machines. By the same token, passenger or freight 747s will still be flying somewhere in the world decades from now, even if they aren't the dominant long-haul carriers that is now the case.

It would have been a brave SF writer who wrote a book in 1970, set in 2020, in which people were still flying around in 747s and in which a major element of the USA's bomber capability was still vested in B52s. But did anyone get it right, I wonder? Are there SF novels that correctly nailed the fact that, while lots of other things change, some major technologies just stick around?

And are there any other examples of very long lived, familiar technologies that ought to be part of the background furniture of any SF novel set in the mid 21st century?


  1. And the Russian's are still flying Soyuz capsules, of course, a design that's something like 45 years old.

  2. So, then are we now seeing the ever so slow stagnation of large-scale advances in tech stuff? Or will the progress to ward 'space tourism' spur a new direction. Or yet again, the nanotech explosion hasn't arrived so far.... But, of course, we now see 'faster than light' travel as a possibility thanks to a Swiss mountain. I think you have still much to weave into a story or two for us!! Cheers.

  3. There's long-lived technology like paper and pencil which may well be in use for ages, despite iPads. If you see some movie from the 1980s, the hair and the shoulder-pads and the brick mobile telephones look laughably dated, but someone writing with a pen on a pad of paper still doesn't look dated, and it doesn't in films from the 30s and 40s.

    You'd think glasses (spectacles) would be superseded by contact lenses or surgery by now, but lots of people still wear them and may do for decades to come.

    I expect doors will not dilate or turn hobbitly circular, and will largely remain side-hinged, sliding or revolving as today.

    On the aviation front, the B-52 stopped being produced in 1962. A couple of planes that have been in production since 1947 and presumably will go on a bit are the Beechcraft Bonanza and the Antonov An-2

  4. Hi Alastair,

    it's interesting you should ask this question; it is practically the exact same topic I was mulling over with a friend a couple of days back, and furthermore, it was all your fault to begin with: your "Revelation Space" series is seriously making my hand itch and look for a nearby pen and paper. One of the themes I like to consider is exactly what makes certain designs "stick" and what I would be least surprised to run into after waking from a centennial sleep.

    Something I strongly believe will remain principally unmodified is the good old-fashioned keyboard input. Interfacing humans with machines is a favorite topic for Sci-Fi speculation, ranging from voice and gesture recognition all the way to full neural patching. The reason is simple: computers require precise input. An O is not the same as a 0; 1 is not l is not I. While this may not be of significance in particular applications (e.g. company memos), in most situations it is of paramount importance not to, say, substitute a period for a comma. This isn't a "feature" of programming languages alone. As computers get more powerful, the software gets smarter too; yet smart software is context-sensitive. We can't rely on our word processor to hyphenate the text properly if we mistyped our "o"s as zeroes. Smart software requires precise input on which to run its smart algorithms. The amount of text we'll be typing is going to diminish, but never the need for its utmost precision.

    Even if computers dwindle down to miniature boxes hidden behind vast touch-sensitive panels and arrays of microphones able to discern not only what is said but also by whom, there will always be an on-screen keyboard one or two fingertaps away.

  5. I think the comment above is really interesting, and applies to buildings too.

    You mentioned houses, but building technology has changed lots in the past 50 years. The difference is that their outward appearance is more or less the same. All the changes are kind of 'behind the scenes'. Buildings are (able to be, or should be) built lighter and more energy efficient now. All the changes have been productisation and logistical side of the building components. Incremental bettering on previous building methods, materials and components.

    Reinforced concrete and lightweight steel construction allow you to build pretty tall towers (and now we can build taller towers (such as the Burj) than was first possible). They were the really big advances in building tech in the last century. Maybe cheap carbon product manufacture (nanotube ribbons, carbon fibre components and diamond) and concrete/building printing will be the 21st century equivalent? Or zippy self-cleaning walls, non-flammable buildings, or some other passive nano-tech applications?

  6. The refrigerator & the freezer.
    A few thoughts about your examples. Jeep & BMW are not vehicles per se, they're brand names. Pan American was thought to be a company that would endure by the producers of 2001 A Space Odyssey based on its long history, but the film ultimately outlived it.
    The B-52 endures not so much because of its virtues but because of the failures of US Air Force project management. There've been 3 replacements for it to date.
    The 747 is an example of how, in aviation, it's not what is seen - the fuselage - that matters nearly so much as what isn't - the engines.
    My intention here is not to criticize but to point out that the appearance of an item of technology & its essence may be quite different.

  7. The AK-47 has been around for 60 years in much the same form and will probably be around for another 50 or 60 in some form, being cheap, reliable, long-lasting and easy to use and there already being so many of them (75 million).

  8. Some excellent points here. Wayward: I tried to put a bit of thought into the use (or absence) of keyboards in the new book - suffice it to say that most of the characters neither need nor use them (or screens) but one or two do.

    Anonymous(es - not sure if you're the same person commenting twice): yes, good points. My point about the B52, though, was not that it could have been superseded - clearly it could easily have been - but that, for whatever reasons, it wasn't. Sometimes technologies stick around not because they are perfect, but because it's too expensive or time-consuming or too much of a bureaucratic muddle to replace them. Most places I travel in Europe, for instance, have fast double-deck trains. They are clearly the ideal solution for mass rapid transit over short to intermediate distances. We don't have them in the UK, though, because our ancient rail infrastructure doesn't allow us to build tall and wide trains - and it would be insanely expensive to raise all the bridges and so on.

    The flipside of the B52 story is the recent cancellation of the program to extend the longevity of Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, which are themselves based around the Comet airliner design.

    Plenty of Dakotas still flying - in fact, there's one in Blue Rememebered Earth, as well as a Cessna 172.

    Re: jeeps - I don't know when they stopped making the basic Willis Jeep but the British Land Rover is a similar design that has been in production since the immediate post-war years, obviously with incremental changes, but still recognisably a Land Rover. Judging by the number of the things around here (Wales) they'll still be around for decades yet.

    Narmitaj: yes, that's a (depressingly) good example. I don't know anything about guns but I'm guessing there are other long-lived designs out there.

  9. With regards to the way in which we construct buildings the developments have been more in the way of computer analysis and design rather than development of better materials.

    Structural engineers (I am one) were designing everything with a pencil, pad and a slide rule up to 40 years ago. Since the advent of computers we can now crunch the numbers in minutes rather than weeks or months to allow extremely tall towers to be developed.

    We still use carbon steel and concrete which have been around for at least a hundred years and the technology has not changed that much.

    Factory production and logistics have also improved too.

  10. Hm... keyboards will be around for a long time to come. Why?

    Try giving them verbal instructions in a noisy room. The poor things are likely to get confused.

    Or making sure the entry is in the right box in a form.

    And besides that some people can type faster than they speak... (not me I hasten to add... my typing is of the two forefingers variety).

  11. Having said that the Kalashnikov AK-47 would likely be around for decades, only yesterday it was in the news as the Russians announced they were not buying any more! Of course, that's partly because they have warehouses "overflowing" with them, and somewhere in the world there'll still be AK-47s in wide use in 100 years.

  12. Unix was developed around 1969 and is still the best choice in server operating systems for a lot of applications. For example transactional databases get several advantages running on Unix than say Windows server.
    I did get a kick out of the concept of a 'root' user for the cache weapons, they run on Unix right? :)
    Sorry to bring up computers as I know you don't have a lot of interest, but Unix is certainly a technology that's stood the test of time.

  13. Here is a perfect example of why keyboards will probably still be around for the foreseeable future.

    Note lots of swearing (but that is the joke)

  14. Cannabis in Space?? Sorry A.R. for introducing recreational drugs into the discussion, deviating from tech/engineering, its interesting to thik about simple human recreation in the far future from drug use to sports and leisure.

    Is also seems fair to say that changes in sports and leisure are destined to be interlaced in advances in tech/engineering (ie. videogames, movie theaters, new sports such as kitesurfing, moreover advancments in these fields are bound to come sooner rather than later due to the implication that these are consumer goods and consumers have a lot of money.

    How far will we go?? Will fundamental human activities like watching football change because of advances in tech or will we become bound to what has defined us for so long?? Humans have been consuming cannabis for centuries both legaly, illegaly or simply culturally. Will this activity make the jump to interstellar travel?? Or will it be replaced, obsolete or simply forgoten??