Forward to the Future

Today is October 21, 2015, the date Marty McFly visits in Back to the Future II. I’m sure most of you were already aware of this. I spend a lot of time living in the future, so I wanted to make the most of this opportunity to write about it. One of the few nostalgic feelings I have toward the 1980s is that science fiction was cuter and more optimistic in those days. At some point, probably right around 9/11, our attitude took a distinctly darker turn, and we’re hopefully nearly through the doldrums of endless dystopias. Dystopian visions are lazy. Imagining different ways to ruin the world is about as difficult as stomping through a sand castle. Imagining a compellingly optimistic future is one of the few truly worthy challenges, particularly because it doesn’t take long before that future becomes the present day.

I’m not going to write a point by point comparison of the technological innovations from BTTFII, because it’s already been done, but also because the stuff we actually have in our current reality is much cooler and more impressive. We’ve eradicated guinea worm, for one thing. I mean, that’s such a big deal that we can basically take a year off and just stand in a line waiting to group-hug Jimmy Carter, because do you know about guinea worm?? Nearly as impressive is the fact that the rate of extreme poverty has dropped, even as the world population has increased by a couple billion since the 80s. In our lifetimes, we’re going to continue to see the standard of living raised for the world’s poorest, and that will include eradication of other parasites and endemic diseases. We’re also starting to see extremely rapid progress with medical innovations, making improvements in treatment for blindness, deafness, paralysis, missing limbs, and even color blindness. Next I’m hoping for something for tinnitus. Whenever I hear people complaining about the news, I know for a fact that they haven’t chosen to follow medical or tech news in their aggregators.

There was no internet in BTTFII. No smartphones, either. Just fax machines everywhere, which, of all the silly things… Complain all you want about how smartphones are turning people into zombies. I talk more to my friends and extended family now than I ever did at any earlier part of my life. Do you remember how expensive long distance phone calls used to be? Remember setting a timer to avoid running the bill too high? Do you remember how we used to drop off rolls of 12 (or 24 if you were lucky) photographs at a time, and pay through the nose for double prints? Now I can look at pictures of the people I love doing the daily whenever I want. If we knew this was coming back in the 80s, we would have cried. I live hundreds of miles away from almost everyone in my life, and it’s social networking, smartphones, Skype, and photo sharing that make this even remotely tolerable. Other people have used social media to reunite with family years after being adopted, and that’s remarkable, isn’t it? We’ve adjusted and learned to take these things for granted very quickly.

Another thing I’ve seen in my lifetime is an astounding drop in the price of airfare. I’ve hopped on a plane three times this year, for my parents’ wedding anniversary, my nephew’s high school graduation ceremony, and a hiking trip with friends 1100 miles away. Flying is so cheap now that people treat it like a bus ride, wearing tank tops, shorts, and flip flops. (Cover your feet and armpits, people, at least… ) As a brief aside, one of the other weird things about our future compared to the fictional future is how extremely casually we dress. We were supposed to be in all this tinfoil couture by now. Back to my main thread, not only can we fly cheaply and easily (and SAFELY), but we can take commercial flights into space, and we’re seriously planning a manned mission to Mars. We put clutter on Mars, yo! Take that, McFly.

Probably one of the best perks of living in the future is the quality and variety of food that is available. Do you remember the orange, flavorless tomatoes we used to get? My pantry is currently full of more things I never knew existed in the 80s than things I did. I routinely cook with curry, pesto, Japanese pickles, seaweed, chard, kale, edamame, quinoa, and all sorts of things I couldn’t pronounce back in the day. Coconut water! Pomegranate everything! Every now and then, I go into a small-town grocery store, and it feels exactly like traveling back in time. The paucity of awesome things I would actually want to cook makes 1980s nostalgia a little mildewed and musty for me.

Another thing we may not be thinking about much is the astounding improvements in the arena of athletic performance. New world records are being set, and almost instantly broken, all the time. Pick a sport, and high school kids are routinely busting what would have been world records in the 80s. This is due to a confluence of training lore, big data, more knowledge about recovery and nutrition, gear, and probably other stuff, such as relative absence of childhood illness. Something that is a big deal in my awareness is how common it is for middle-aged and senior people to compete seriously in sports like ultramarathon. You don’t have to look far to find people in their 80s kicking major butt. Marathons and other distances of foot race tend to sell out, sometimes within hours, and it’s hard to find enough venues for all the people who want to race. In my time, I’ve seen the advent or dissemination of cool fitness trends like adventure racing, CrossFit, Pilates, Zumba, Ultimate Frisbee, and even Quidditch. The future is going to hold a great deal more interesting options for team sports and solo training.

The future is a really excellent place. I could go on and on. Like how nobody smokes indoors anymore. Or how I have a Roomba, a Braava, a laptop, a smart TV, an iPhone 6, an Apple Watch, a 2.5x capacity washer and dryer, a solar powered backup battery and lantern, and a bunch of other things that would have boggled my 1989 mind. I often look at the world around me in 1987 terms (my year of choice, when I was 12) and take it all in for a moment. CGI! YouTube! Wikipedia! Google! Cloud storage! Panorama photos! Any single one of these things would have amazed me for an entire summer. Now I use them all on a daily basis. It’s up to you whether you let yourself take things for granted, or pause and feel true awe and astonishment. Personally, I’m stuck in the middle, between being thrilled by the impossibly fantastic future in which we live, or poleaxed by the possibilities of the unimaginably rad future we’ll be living in another 26 years.

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