The Future Merchants

This article is a guest contribution by Steven Hoober.

The smartphone is my rocket pack. When I was quite young I was exposed to things like the Aspen Movie Map. This sort of exposure to technology made me the naysayer I am today; I saw the potential of all sorts of connected information systems decades ago, and see so often where short-sighted competitive pressures, or lack of vision has let us all down.

I was also a voracious reader of SF. That’s science fiction to you people who aren’t nerdy enough. Never “sci fi.” By the time I was 14, I had read everything (literally, everything) on the shelf in the local library, and had branched out to others, and started buying my own books. Without Amazon, somehow. Really, I have no recollection of how I was finding interesting works. I have a vague notion of subscribing to some of the pulp magazines, so their short work and reviews may have helped.

Anyway, I have semi-recently been shocked to find out that not everyone read these works in the manner I did. For example, some find Asimov’s outstandingly brilliant (and award-winning, beating out Lord of the Rings) Foundation trilogy to be dated because the characters have the gall to do things like use paper. I guess they haven’t heard that eBook sales are down, or that paper is very sturdy; if I spend months bringing you a secret message, it better not be corrupted. Or they point to things like that the pocket transcription machine is a tiny mechanical typewriter.

But I read this not as mechanical, but as electronic. Before PDAs existed, I read this as electronic. I sometimes wonder if I read As We May Think when I was younger. But it may just have been exposure to early microcomputer that made me see the potential of this. I programmed graphics in Basic on an Apple II in grade school, around 1979 (sadly the 5-1/4” diskette got lost), which I gather not everyone did. But somehow I didn’t get locked into the trap of assuming the current form factor is the only one.

Maybe because good SF is full of unexplained technology, like this:

Gaal fumbled for the coins. He said, “Where do I go?”

“Follow the light. The ticket will keep glowing as long as you are pointed in the right direction.”

That’s so cool and I still don’t have one of these!

And with the next breath, too many discuss how Star Trek was so very prescient. But last year I re-watched every single Star Trek episode and movie, even the animated series. Travel for work is more boring than you might think. And I found that the technology is not as cutting edge, or maybe not cutting edge in the way you might think. Most troublesome is that there’s not much radio.

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The PADD (and similar devices) are digital notepads in the way you might think of digital notepads in the era before mobile devices. That is, to give someone data on a notepad you have to actually walk over and give them the notepad. Hell, there’s an episode (VOY, Latent Image) where a key plot point is villains removing all evidence from the central computers (and wired terminals throughout the ship), but the information on what amounts to a digital camera is only on the camera so is safe. And this is not ancient history, but a show aired in 1999. My digital camera (not to mention my camera-bearing phones) are deeply synched to my cloud services and networks, way before we got FTL spaceships.

Another work that’s always been in the back of my mind was Frederik Pohl’s The Merchant’s War (and to a lesser degree it’s important predecessor, The Space Merchants). Because it covers not so much the technology as the effects of this, and how politics, law, religion, work and society change because of, and to take advantage of new technologies. Some are very current, with easy references to distracted driving, creepily-intelligent advertising, and the assumption that the government and industry are collaborating to spying on us. All of it for our own good of course.

But still, networks and information sharing like we have today are rare. Or are they?  Pohls’ advertising seems to be customized, so is clearly connected to some version of a Central Computer. Max Headroom was brilliantly interesting, but mostly I’ll ask you to remember it came out in the 1980s. A good decade before the Web was about, so it focused on TV as the primary distribution method, but still had lots of non-video information being spread around, not to mention the TVs were at least secretly two-way so the networks could monitor user behavior in real time.

Or more specifically, Philip K Dick talks about this in several works. This is from the story If There Were No Benny Cemoli:

It was uncanny, Hood thought as he read the lead article. The very news-gathering services of the homeopape had reached into his own life, had digested and then inserted into the lead article even the discussion between himself and Otto Dietrich. The newspaper was – had been – doing its job. Nothing of news-interest escape it, even a discreet conversation carried on with no outsiders as witnesses…

Yup, it’s the maximum-creepy version of the already almost-creepy way that Google delivers news or search results that seem a little too specific to our needs.

In others, the news computer actually continues to work (and work at remaking the world) after a global apocalypse. And if the big sociology is getting to you, Dick also had gestural control:

“You’re wrong, honey,” Al said seriously. “The l-channel is for news and factual information. The s-channel is for pleasure. I enjoy watching this way, but – He waved his hand and the circuit switched abruptly. The vivid swirls of color and sound winked out. In their place the placid features of the Westinghouse news announcer appeared.

I want to run this back around to the concept of old SF becoming dated, and no one paying much attention to it. I think this is very similar to the problems we encounter with technology today. In 1999 I was on the first of my many projects on location based services. Very quickly we applied principles which are the same ones used today, and we’re all set to supply location services using what is now called “coarse” services. That’s all you need for weather, or local news and sports.

So what happened? Nothing of course. Everyone (at our company and everyone else) decided to wait for GPS. Yup, even though it wasn’t important for most services. And even though we didn’t get the foundations in place so it took years to get them in place once GPS equipped phones were popular. And even now location services are sorta stupid and things like weather apps too often insist on getting GPS location.

We’re continuing to see the same stuff all the time. We can’t do digital wallets until everyone has NFC and every store accepts them. Um… sure. Or we can use some of the many, many other technologies and come up with an interim solution. The same has to be true of social needs as well. We should no longer wait until required by law or overwhelming demand to provide quality experiences, much less privacy and security to our users.