alexandtheweb / blog

Feeling the future

The Man Who Fell to earth

In 1974, four years after Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ was first published, the BBC made a documentary about David Bowie called ‘Cracked Actor’. In it, the gorgeous, fragile, coke-emaciated Bowie (see 30:25) likens the first swell of success to being a frightened passenger in a rapidly accelerating car.

What does it feel like to be unsettled by the rush of life around you – especially by the onset of new technology? If Douglas Adams was right then my age – early 30’s – has yet to qualify me for future shock. But in Bowie’s analogy I recognised the slight, unsettled sensation which now besets me as I come across certain news stories or life events.

As part of a technology-assisted learning module I’m currently doing at uni we’ve been working with a group of 10-12 year old girls at the Self-Managed Learning College. The hope is that we can broaden their understanding of how technology can be used to make things, not merely to consume them.

Our first meeting with the kiddos evolved into a project brainstorming session. With almost no prompting, the group showered us with ideas: they demanded we build pillows that store dreams, jackets that detect moods and robots that babysit. They wanted to design fridges that suggest recipes and thought-controlled musical instruments.

What struck me was not the breadth of their whimsy – but that I knew for a fact not a single idea spawned from their 10-year-old imaginations could be dismissed as science fiction. The technology for everything they wanted to make is already here and within reach. And that’s wonderful. And that’s also really weird.

Slowly it dawns on you: little belongs anymore to the realm of outright fancy. There’s Google Glass. Then there’s no-touch biometric data capture. And then there’s – no, really – rat telepathy over the internet. There’s my friend whose life-saving ICD can be hacked and compromised. It also makes her, in strictest definition of the the word, a cyborg.

I don’t have a weighed, rational opinion about the ethical and social implications of any of these things. They continue to fascinate and absorb me. Nor do I, in earnest, have future shock. I have some of its symptoms, sometimes. But that gives me enough to describe it, not just in Bowie’s visceral terms.

It’s the feeling of waking up in a world that doesn’t belong to you.