Wobbly Tables and the Problem with Futurism

Just like in Minority Report, people still catch colds

This post is part of a collection of micro-essays called Philosophistry: The Love of Rhetoric

In Minority Report, despite Maglev cars and floating user interfaces, people still catch colds. Similarly, I believe that a hundred years from now, something like 25% of restaurant tables will still wobble. Forget about the Singularity or Moore’s Law reaching its zenith, this fact about tables will somehow remain. I call this philosophy “The Banality of Futurism,” and by delving deeper into the wobbly table issue we can see why some problems just weren’t meant to be solved.

Let’s start with today. The current solution to wobbly tables, besides using folded sugar packets, is to sell tables with adjustable screws. Many restaurants already have these tables, but because of how inconvenient it is to find someone to lift the table while you bend over and get your hands dirty, the solution is not utilized. This leads us to Principle #1 of the Banality of Futurism: The future may already be here, but we don’t use it.

Now, this assumes restaurant owners even bought tables with adjustable screws. While wobbly tables are a collective nuisance, the owners are individuals who have to look at a catalog of restaurant tables and each come to the same conclusion: “I should pay for the premium tables, so that my customers don’t have wobbly tables.” But because of the cost-saving motivation combined with some rationalizations such as “My floors in the new restaurant should be flat” or “We can just stick small wood chips underneath them,” we have the situation we end up in today. Principle #2: The future may already be here, but the problem isn’t annoying enough to solve at scale.

Continuing on to the immediate future, wobbly tables are still problematic. Let’s say Apple designs “the perfect table,” one that adjusts easily. Perhaps they’re electrically adjustable with the push of a button. Or maybe the screws are designed such that you can easily adjust them with your toe. Again, by the same principle above, restaurant tables won’t get the Apple treatment. Part of the problem is that it’s a commodity item, like printers, so there’s no incentive for one player to make the table and own the market. Principle #3: The future may already be here, but nobody wants to build it.

Further out, in the exotic future, if there were some cheap solution that involved fancy material science, we would have already found it. Imagine some hard, rubbery substance that expands or contracts based on continuous pressure — or lack of — over multiple days. The date of this material’s discovery would be random and not linked to exponential increases in computing power or intelligence. Given how far we’ve already gone into material science, the discovery would have to be by luck, or barring that, by intense force. Furthermore, the difficulty in its discovery would likely imply a difficulty in manufacturing it as well, and so again, it won’t be cheap.

There’s many things like the wobbly table. I often come across life’s annoyances and think, “It’s 2016. How the hell is this still a thing?” For example, all of these will still be problems in 2116:

  • Pizza boxes that won’t stay completely shut
  • Stray corners of paper towels left behind upon ripping
  • Old refrigerators that make weird noises
  • Stubbing our toes on the sharp edges of furniture

In 2001, after reading Kurzweil’s Age of the Spiritual Machines, I thought the Singularity would have happened by now and we’d have merged with machines. Don’t get me wrong, I’m amazed by all the great advances that have been made in the past 15 years, but I’m even more amazed by areas that haven’t changed. It boggles my mind that I’ve been a redditor for 10 years and an Amazon member for 20. The way things were changing in the 1990s, I thought all of this stuff would have been gone by now, superseded by something else.

But perhaps the silver lining in the Banality of Futurism is that the room for growth won’t be in fixing life’s inconveniences, but rather in the human condition. If poverty is eliminated or if war becomes taboo, or maybe, just maybe, we somehow become better friends, then I’ll gladly eat an apple pie on a wobbly table while blowing my nose.

This post is part of a collection of micro-essays called Philosophistry: The Love of Rhetoric