I’m very old and so are you

When I was five I saw the Apollo Moon landing live on black and white TV. It was a technological achievement close to a miracle to see a moving picture broadcast from the surface of the Moon. But in terms of quality, it looked like this…

Not 4K! Look at that compression! See those scan lines!

The more recent past was just as weird and strange. When I first went into the workforce it wasn’t frowned upon to smoke in the office at work. It was normal and you didn’t have to go outside first.

I worked as a tech journalist when all the journalism in the world was printed on paper, read out over the radio, or spoken to a TV camera. Print journalism was bound together as a “newspaper” or “magazine” and sold in a nearly-extinct retail channel called “a shop”.

The only way to get typography as clear as the words you’re reading right now on your screen was to… look, I’m not going to go into how many steps and technical specialists it took to print a page at a resolution high enough that you couldn’t see any dots, but trust me, it’d take days and thousands of dollars to print something as long as this blog post at this resolution.

Much of my job was to open press releases sent to me in the “mail”. Sometimes if it was very urgent or important we might receive information via a “fax machine” or “telex”. The office had a single mobile phone, which you had to book days in advance. It had a battery life of about 20–25 minutes and if you spent 15 minutes on a call it would cost about $250, which was about a days’ pay for me.

This bad boy was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. The handset offered 30 minutes of talk-time, six hours standby, and could store 30 phone numbers. It couldn’t do the internet (because obviously there wasn’t one) and it couldn’t do text messages (because SMS hadn’t been invented yet either). It cost about the same as a personal computer.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I’m only 52. And when I was dreaming of being allowed to use the company’s DynaTAC mobile phone I would have been about 27.

Fifty years is not a long time between the Apollo space program and the iPhone 8. Twenty five years is not a long time between the DynaTAC and the iPhone 8. Ten years between the original iPhone and the iPhone 8 is not a long time. Yet any time when you look back and imagine a world without any iPhones, it seems like an eternity ago.

The past and the future are a problem

Why? Because we Homo Sapiens have a lot of trouble with imagining the the future and remembering the past. The past always seems further away than it actually was, and the future always turns out to be more different than we imagine.

Your mindfulness coach may be telling you to work on staying present and in the moment, but actually, a bigger problem is remembering the past accurately and predicting the future. Why is that?

More qualified brains than mine posit that this is because our neurology is optimised for responding to the present moment, a requirement of a brain carried in the head of a tasty biped in the middle of an ancient African savannah full of large ambush predators.

All the time, our brain is paying attention to movement in our visual field and sounds in our audio range; like the hot dog app from the TV series Silicon Valley, our brains are identifying, sorting and categorising these inputs as “large ambush predator” and “not large ambush predator”.

Not hot dog

If it’s not the wind that just made the grass move or made that rustling sound, you, me and the family have only a few seconds before we’re hot dog. You can walk up behind anybody in any state of mind and make them jump with an unexpected noise or touch and the reaction is nearly instantaneous and universal.

Our neural pathways have been so optimised for this process that most of the time we’re not even conscious we’re doing it. As far as I know I’m 100% focused on stirring the pasta sauce until you make a sudden loud noise and then pasta sauce is all over the wall.

A brain that lives largely in the moment is ill-equipped to accurately envision the future or to remember what the past was really like. It’s hard to do at all, and it requires extended exposure to the past as a historian, or to the future as a technologist, to be able to do it accurately. To help someone else navigate the past or future.

When someone on the bleeding edge of technology tells you that we’ll soon be travelling in autonomous vehicles, or that much of our non-creative work will be done for us by AI systems, don’t give in to your brain’s inability to concieve of a future so foreign to the world we live in today. Begin to prepare for a world in which that comes true much sooner than you expect.

Jones’s Law Of The Future

If the future happens, it will always happen much sooner than you expect.

You don’t have to be fifty years old to know this is true. All you have to do is think about what the world was like only ten years ago, in a world without smartphones. With the tenth anniversary of the iPhone this year, take the time to recall in as much detail as you can about a pre-iPhone world and how much has changed since then. Because the next ten years will include as least as much change, if not more.