Saturday, February 01, 2014

Hello tomorrow

Lately around the web I've been seeing a lot of those breathlessly excited pieces which are about how some historical figure or recently dead person or sci-fi writer from an appropriately distant decade was spookily prescient about the present. Cue cartoon or quotation or artwork which hews wowishly close to a feature of the modern techscape.   

I'm pretty sure this sort of thing has been around since before people were misattributing diatribes on the state of modern youth to Hesiod and Socrates. 

The wow! clairvoyant! thing is always presented as freakily uncanny, crystal-ballish, or like a bit of theoretical prediction -- Fresnel's bright spot, or the existence of Neptune. As though there is no relationship between what we once thought the future would be like and the way it actually is. It's like we're drunk on too much science on the telly. As if we're so accustomed to knowing that electrons and black holes and gravity would go on doing what they do whether or not there had ever been a person in the universe that we've forgotten that some of how things are is not because of primordial soup but because, you know, Steve Jobs.

It's not just the the future is built by us, it's that it is built as we imagine it. The match will be imperfect, because mercifully people are unpredictable and because for whatever time you pick there will be things we don't know yet. Sometimes things are impossible. But we'll still build what we imagine.

We're bad at seeing how all the places in our lives are imagined, or have imagined counterparts which live like babel fish in our ears and become part of what the words mean. England. Nature, wilderness, farm, forest, ocean. City, neighbourhood, heimat. Landscape, Vaterland. The future is an especially excellent imagined place, because it doesn't have any features yet. Because it's not here. It's always there.

Jobs hired Jerry Manock in 1977 to design the Apple II. He chose that classic shade of beige because it was 'the colour of the deep-space universe'.  How's that? Deep-space is beige? But we get it. I've spent a fun couple of hours today looking at science-fiction from the 60s which might have influenced him. One day maybe I'll get to fossick around in his archives at Stanford. All of his design notes are in there, colour chips and all.

Manock chose that colour because that's what we thought the future looked like. And then that's what the future did look like. Pantone 453.

I'm not Steve Jobs, though, or one of those impressive Enlightenment types who said cleverly accurate things about how the political landscape would some day look. Sometimes it seems like it can't possibly be that the future is being built by me. It is happening to me, bearing down upon me from some distant unfathomable source, for all I know on malign thoughts intent.

Earlier today for stupid, inconsequential reasons having to do with my tax return, I checked the UK border control website for something. They've changed the rules again. This time it's because people are supposedly 'gaming the system' because of course your number one goal in structuring immigration law should be making sure that visas are protected from the hordes of cheating, lying, feeloading bastard foreigners who desire nothing but the destruction of the English way of life, aka applicants to stay in the country.   

They change the rules all the time. This isn't new to me. 

But the careful reminder curled around my throat and hung there while I tried to get on with a day that looked perfectly ordinary. That would have been perfectly ordinary. The ordinary day with the reserved sign on it. Because I'm the cheating, lying, freeloading foreigner. Unless I'm not. 

You're in your own cop show. You're standing outside your house while officers with a warrant toss it. Bad cop presides over the rifling of your underwear drawer. Out on your porch good cop watches you with basilisk eyes. Of course, if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about, says good cop reassuringly.    

You've seen enough cop shows for that to be about as reassuring as a cop with basilisk eyes.  

Sometimes the ordinary is the most powerfully imagined place there is.  

No comments: