A while ago the SF site io9.com asked What’s the Most Futuristic Thing About You?. They were wondering if their readership was part of that unequally distributed future that William Gibson writes so memorably about. The replies described the amazing technology in people’s pockets, the jobs that would have been hard to imagine even ten years ago, the people who should have been killed by what used to be called natural causes, but are now alive because those flaws can be fixed.
I have no such stories. I’m a straight white male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting, live in a hundred-year-old house, and have had pretty much the same job for thirty years.
What is astonishing are the people around me. I work with women who used to be men, with people born in vanished dictatorships on the other side of the world, with people who have machines keeping them alive, with people conceived inside machines, and with people who would be insane without drugs. I feel pretty dull, actually, compared to all the futuristic people who comprise more and more of the world.
It used to be that it was mainly the machines that changed. We’ve been having that kind of future shock for the last 200 years. Every decade some new and wonderful (and sometimes horrific) way to do something would come along. Purely technical progress hit peaks in the 1890s and 1960s, and we’re not close to that rate of mechanical change today. Yet people themselves are changing in profound ways. That matters more than the GPU gigaflops in your cellphone.
Gibson himself recognized this long ago. His early stories of flashy technology look rather dated today, while his recent novels are set only minutes in the future. Yet they seem to have more of that dissociated SF feel, that sense of being elsewhere, of unfamiliarity. It’s the contrast of mundane details of today with spooky intrusions from the future. We’re used to having flashy new gadgets, but it’s the new people that tell us we’ve entered someplace we’ve never been before.