Monday, August 27, 2012

Waiting For The Year 2000

A Look Back

Brother Portable Typewriter: This is similar to the typewriter I started using in 1973 to bang out my term papers and other school assignments; it was my companion well into university, when I started using an IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter. Such was a clear advancement, since it also had a correcting feature.
Source: MrMartin'sWeb

In 1975, after graduating from high school at age 17, I remember quite vividly having a talk with my Mom about the year 2000. Not only about my plans for what I wanted to be when I attained adulthood—I already knew I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, greatly inspired by the Space Program and Neil Armstrong—but what would the physical future look like and what changes awaited our generation. One of the questions was what life would be like in the Year 2000, 25 years later. What then seemed like an eternity, yet full of promise and hope.

I knew that I would be 42. What I didn't know, but thought worth thinking about, was what changes would take place to society and its human inhabitants. Having seen the results of civil rights and women's-rights legislation, I felt that we were moving and progressing in the right direction. Would technological and scientific advances lead to an end to hatreds and wars? The thinking partly centred on the naive belief that we all could arrive at harmonious ways to share the planet; the United Nations being one of the international bodies that would lead by example. But it was Science in general that would lead the way. I was, like many science students, politically unaware.

Remember: this was way before the era of personal computers, cordless phones, any mobile electronic devices and even VCRs. We still had transistors in our radios and tubes in our TVs and were living at at a time when colour TV was still viewed as a big deal as was hi-fi stereo equipment. Computers existed then in large form as mainframes with spinning discs the size of long-playing records; in technical institutions and universities they were housed in dedicated rooms kept cold to dissipate the heat that such large mainframes generated. The idea of personal computers was not widely disseminated and all that we now take for granted, including easily accessible electronic databases, digital film-less cameras and electronic mobile devices such as cell-phones and tablets, were only thought of only in inchoate form.

While these electronic devices are often convenient and useful, they are not what persons in the 1970s were seeking in terms of future betterment. The thoughts then were not so much about personal electronic devices, although that was suggested with the popularity of transistor radios, but it was more about pursuing individual goals that would have a collective benefit. The 1970s were still part of a thought, an idea, where the individual could make a huge difference on society. So, if you became an engineer, you would help design better airplanes, or safer cars, or more efficient machines or alternative energy sources to replace petroleum products. You could even dare to become an astronaut.

I was raised on science-fiction writers like Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. One of the predictions was that humanity would be better, act better toward each other, with increased food production, development of vaccines to fight diseases, increased education and better use of natural resources. That it would rise above its past ignominies. That it would forego hatreds. That it would forge a new narrative. In all such areas where technology has been used for good, humanity has generally raised the standard—although many, particularly environmentalists, will disagree.

Yet, humanity is still mired in the same hatreds and arguments that has plagued it since its inception. We still commit acts of barbarianism and commit atrocities, as humans are wont to do, but now do it with better technology. More precision. Technology is a double-edged sword. Sure, technology has been a boon to humanity—without question—but it alone will not advance civilization, will not better humanity, will not make us better human beings.

So, now I look back at the past imperfect to foresee dimly what's ahead of us; surely, a strange thought, indeed, but please bear with me for a few moments. When I was on the cusp of adulthood and about to become a contributing member of civil society, I thought that Science & Technology would answer the majority of humanity's needs; this includes manned space programs and space exploration . Today, in my early fifties, I realize that science and its applications are important and make our lives easier and, even, exciting and purposeful. 

Yet, its limitations are hauntingly apparent. We are still waiting.