Banality of Futurism

In the future, tables will still wobble

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. Read Essay on Medium.

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After utopia arrives, life's annoyances will magnify, whether it's the common cold, traffic jams, or unrequited love

We may never appreciate utopia because it won't feel amazing. Petty annoyances, such as being stuck in traffic, won't automatically go away, even if we eliminate hunger. The drama of human relationships will endure even if all nations lay down their arms. And even if poverty is vanquished, death and decay will hang around our necks, potentially more so since we won't be distracted by our basic needs.

A hundred years from now, despite the Singularity or Moore's Law, 25% of restaurant tables will still wobble

In Minority Report, despite Maglev cars and floating user interfaces, people still catch colds. Similarly, a hundred years from now, around 25% of restaurant tables will still wobble. Never mind the Singularity or Moore's Law reaching its zenith, this fact about tables will remain. This philosophy is called "The Banality of Futurism," and by delving deeper into the wobbly table issue it's clear some problems weren't meant to be solved.

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 to Principle #1 of the Banality of Futurism: The future may already be here, but we don't use it.

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 are many things like the wobbly table. 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

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, then maybe eating an apple pie on a wobbly table while blowing our noses won't be so bad.

Banality of Futurism

Science fiction usually portrays a future chock-full of mind-blowing or exotic experiences. However, our past experiences with technological enhancement seem to be a letdown. The world hasn't turned out like The Jetsons after all. Instead, innovation has a way of quickly becoming banal.

For example, when television first came out, the prediction was that we'd eliminate Harvard and all higher education institutions because quality learning could be piped to millions of people simultaneously into their living rooms. That never materialized, and instead, now we have reality TV programming.

The most accurate way to think about future technology is to give it a pre- post-mortem. When some amazing new thing, like nanotechnology, comes out, how will humanity inevitably make it boring? For one thing, nanotechnology could arrive slowly, like over the span of 100 years. The first advancements from nanotech might lead to simply better 3D printers, which are already here and aren't that interesting. Or it might lead to 20% more efficient medicine delivery mechanism; nurses would just add another tube for "nanotech" to pipe along with your IV or your injection.

Cryoshock

How do you rationally approach the decision to do cryo? Assuming you decide it's technically feasible, the question then gets reduced to "Is cryo worth it?"

You could use a saw like Pascal's Wager, where you say something to the effect of, "If I even have a small chance at immortality, couldn't I justify an unlimited amount of effort to obtain it?" But then why not also relocate to the cryo facility prematurely to guarantee an optimal freeze? Why not wear a helmet every day?

Instead of weighing your decision to do cryo in the abstract, you could use a more practical heuristic: Determine whether or not you would regret waking up in the future. This kind of thinking factors in common dissent to cryo: "I don't think I would survive the shock," or "I would feel so utterly alone." These statements seem to be connected to popular portrayals of time travel, like Encino Man, which show brutes from the past fumbling their way embarrassingly through the uncaring present. But perhaps, this rejection is simply the default response to considering something as alien as the cryo experience.

If you dig deeper, applying a bit of the banality principle of futurism, cryo scenarios can actually be grounded in the familiar. Using myself as an example, imagine I'm in my mid-20s living in Boston in the 1770s. I spend my days as a dock worker, dreaming of one day becoming a shipping baron. I then meet someone who will freeze me in exchange for working a few extra hours a week to pay for life insurance. After some thought, I sign up for a monthly payment plan and then forget about it. A few years later, I am unexpectedly stricken with consumption, vapors, or some other eighteenth-century malady, and die at the age of 30. I am then promptly placed in a barrel, filled with ice, and shipped off to Northern Canada where I spend the next 230 years. Finally, I wake up in Austin, Texas. The year is 2006.

Walking through my first years in Austin, I would find myself in awe of how much better life was. Every time I ate a Big Mac I would think about how often I was hungry in Boston. Every time I got sick, I would recall how every sneeze used to mean that Black Death was around the corner. I would probably start off as a janitor, then work my way up to cashier at a convenience store while working on my vocabulary and manners. After a year, I would probably take classes for a simple vocation, something where I can use both my hands and my brain. Maybe I'd pick plumbing. I'd work hard, because I'd want money. I'd want money, because I'd have an insatiable curiosity, one that would drive me to either buy comforts that were once reserved for kings, such as silverware, or to experience things that were once reserved for magicians, such as flying. In other words, I would be a simple, hard-working man whose baseline expectations were so low because he had come from so far away.

Eventually I'd want a girlfriend and then a family. For me, the typical middle-class existence would suffice, but I wouldn't lose my sense of wonder about modern times: having babies that survive; public education; unlimited entertainment; never having to use an outhouse. None of it would get old. One Christmas, sitting in my living room with my wife and kids who are all healthy and safe, I would think to myself, "I'm really glad I worked extra hours in Boston so I could afford cryonics."

To come up with the story, I picked a realistic setting. In real life, I was 24 in 2006 and moved by myself from the San Francisco Bay Area to Austin, sight unseen. I had no friends and no job lined up; I just went. To add to the story, I weaved in tales from my father, who grew up in a refugee camp in India but then moved to Canada in the late 1960s with only $100 in his pocket. He often tells me about his first Big Mac.

Using a plausible story and gauging regret is such a simple way of thinking about cryonics. When we imagine the far future, it's often in one of two extremes: a crude apocalypse on one end or a shiny cybernetic simulation on the other. In a way, both ideas are horrific because of how uncertain they are. And it's that fear that shuts down all reasoning. But the future won't be extreme. Life will be mostly like today, except with less crime, poverty, and illness, i.e. a similar leap forward from where we were two hundred years ago. Maybe we'll have some wild, fantastical invention, such as the Holodeck, but ultimately life will remain the same: We will fall in love, we will fall out of love, we will strive for meaning and purpose, but we will still enjoy kicking back and watching movies. If you're scared of cryonics, you're ultimately scared of life, and maybe the cost of continuing it.

Delayed technophilia is the process by which we celebrate technological progress years after we've become inured to it

In the late 1990s, there were more than 500 million Internet users, and yet it was chided at the time as a novelty. Even though in Silicon Valley, it was described as a world-changing force, the popular understanding of it was as a place for time-wasters like pornography and cat photos. The Internet was conceived of as just one application out of many, something to sit alongside word processing or graphic design.

Now, the Internet is so integrated into our lives, that for many people, it's the only way they stay in touch, and for many businesses, it's the only way they make money. Our livelihoods are dependent on it, and so, in retrospect, it seems like a monumental innovation, perhaps even greater than the invention of the computer.

Likewise, airplanes and automobiles were initially received as novelties. Everybody was familiar with cars at the time, but they were primarily owned by the rich, and they were a nuisance on the road. A drive in one, for most people, facilitated something that they used to do by other means, such as by walking or with horse and carriage. It wasn't until later that all transport took place via cars, that it now seems inconceivable to imagine the trappings of modern life without them.

New technologies are initially only interested in acquiring new users; acquiring integration into those same users' lives is a whole different challenge. Thus, groundbreaking technologies only get recognized as such much later on, even decades after actually breaking ground.

Historians will split the Information Age into two phases: one when Moore's Law seemed unstoppable, and one when it didn't

Once you learn about Moore's Law, you start to see it everywhere. Not only is CPU speed increasing exponentially, but so is hard disk storage and network technologies. Beyond the direct participants in Moore's Law-like growth patterns, there are secondary and tertiary fields that have also been affected: Weapons have become exponentially deadlier, and our ability to reap food from the Earth has become exponentially easier. There's a compounding effect to all this. Faster CPU speed makes it easier to do research, which makes it easier to invent the Internet, which then makes it easier to do research, which then makes it easier to make bullets and farm.

But just as we see Moore's Law everywhere, we are also noticing where it's absent. Despite the proliferation of many Moore's Laws in many fields, there's just some things that won't change. For example, tables in restaurants will still be uneven because the incentives to always bend over and adjust the tables in restaurants aren't there, and the value of a stable table isn't high enough to justify the invention of affordable self-adjusting table technology. Exponentially increasing CPU speed won't mean that such self-adjusting table technology will all of a sudden become affordable, or that if it does, it may take 100+ years to get here. So don't hold your breath.

But that may just be a problem with the nature of human demand. We aren't demanding un-wobbly tables that much, and it doesn't affect the restaurant-going experience that much, so it doesn't necessarily get the fruits of technological progress as quickly as something core, like our ability to kill each other and farm food.

But even controlling for demand, we can find limits to Moore's Law on the supply-side. For example, pervasive cell phone reception does not appear to be increasing exponentially. Even though cell towers are getting more powerful and cheaper to build, the cost to install them probably isn't changing much. Even as the mobile phone bandwidth is getting better in places where there already exists coverage, it still is horrible on a cross-country drive across the United States, and it is likely to remain horrible for a couple more decades. Sure, there isn't enough demand in those rural areas to justify installing a cell tower, but the problem is also subject to labor costs, which are probably rising as well as fixed resource costs, such as the fuel necessary to move installation equipment to those rural areas. It takes a certain amount of calories to dig a post for a cell tower that just won't get automatically obliterated by exponential technological progress.

We have one foot in the rapidly changing future and one in a world that is becoming increasingly banal. Our impatience for technological advances that should be here by now is encapsulated perfectly by the question, "Where are our damn flying cars?"

Law of Diminishing Enthusiasm

One of the caveats about accelerating change is that we may reach physical limits to how fast we can make computers. That at some point, all the processors work on an electron scale, and can't be reduced any further, or that solving the overheating problem of CPUs may become intractable.

But there is another limit that could factor in: human demand. All technology is ultimately created to serve consumption. Without demand, there is no further development.

For example, at some point, we won't need anything after HD or Retina displays. The human eye won't appreciate any further refinements. Already we can see the disinterest in CPU speed on computers. In the 1990s, even casual computer consumers cared about how many megahertz their machines had. Now, the number of people that know how many GHz or cores their laptop has is a small minority. Instead, innovation is being driven by the miniaturization of CPUs. But at some point, we will have the thinnest possible phone. Already, some people complain that the iPhone 5 is too thin, and therefore too easily slips out of their hands. After thin-ness, what's next?

That hasn't stopped CPU innovation, though, because there has been this massive expanse of cloud computing and web servers. Consumer demand is still affecting CPU innovation, but it's proxy via demands from businesses like Google and Facebook that are servicing consumers.

At one point, it was video game consoles that were pushing the envelope of processing power. But after the PlayStation 3, there isn't much more that the gamer needs. Theoretically, the PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5 will have as much graphical processing power as is used in rendering a 3D-animated Pixar film, but video gamers are drifting in the other direction, toward casual games on their iPhones, or are content with less graphically intense games on the Wii. So there is a step in the opposite direction, to make slightly slower CPUs at a cheaper cost.

There's also a limited number of hours a human has. While as a power consumer may own a laptop, smartphone, and a tablet, they divide their time between all three. Can they add another device? Perhaps they will have backup smartphones, and tablets, and eReaders, but again, that will just reduce the amount of time they spend on each device. The introduction of another device will diminish each's significance. We can only consume so much entertainment per day.

There is a pattern, though, where we sometimes think, "No more innovation will happen." For example, there is the famous (though false) quote from the Commissioner of the US patent office who said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Or there's another famous (though false) quote from Bill Gates: "640K of memory should be enough for anybody." And just when we were perhaps getting bored in 2009, James Cameron released Avatar into theaters, and 3D became the next big envelope pusher. We thought, "Alas, the PlayStation 4 would need to be at least twice as fast to handle all the 3D games!" But since then, consumers have become lukewarm to 3D. So already, we can see a turning back from new technology faster than we can innovate.

Statements like "Where is my jetpack!" lose their strength whenever partial innovations, like self-driving cars, arrive

We might be losing our wonderment about the future. The height of science-fiction excitement might have been in the 1950s when we optimistically imagined flying cars and interplanetary travel. While the delay in fulfilling those promises is the main contributor to the disillusionment, another contributor is the fact that tantalizing pieces of the future are arriving gradually, neutralizing our fantasies.

Holodecks, for example, which in Star Trek were rooms that could conjure up any desired world, are no longer a common fantasy. Is this because of the prevalence of virtual worlds in massively multiplayer online games? Is this because having information at our fingertips is essentially access to an infinite supply of visual vistas? Any movie, any television show, and any wholly immersive form of entertainment that you could wish for are at your command. And if you are tired of traveling through virtual worlds, you can simply travel in the real world. The cost of travel has lagged so much behind inflation, and remote work has become so prevalent, that for an expanding circle of people, one can be anywhere anytime.

Sufficient Substitutes

3D printing was supposed to herald a revolution, one where ordinary consumers would print all sorts of widgets for their homes. And yet, after a decade or so of its existence, all we have is a transformation of a few corners of the industrial manufacturing process. Consumers already solved their need for 3D printing a long time ago. People have small woodshops in their garages to build replacement legs for their furniture. And Home Depot already has an infinite spectrum of 3D parts that can fill most gaps in the house.

Likewise, with virtual reality and cryptocurrency, we already achieve the same goals through other means. Virtual reality, for example, is supposed to transport us to new places, but we already have that through air travel and cinema. Cryptocurrencies are supposed to free us from government regulation of currency, but we already have that through untraceable commodities, such as gold or diamonds, or even dollar bills, which don't leave a paper trail as crypto does.

People still use fax machines despite the existence of e-mail, and people still use taxis despite the presence of Uber and Lyft. People care mostly about accomplishing goals, and if something can get them 90% of the way there, then there isn't much room for growth.

The Jetsons haven't arrived because the future is mass consumerism, all familiar and cheap

We want a future that is filled with blinking lights, neon spectacles, and shiny flying cars. We want it to be like science fiction, i.e. completely unfamiliar and exciting. And yet, the future will look very much like today. The experience of being in a self-driving car will be more like riding a compact bus for one. It won't be like The Minority Report, with first-class four-seaters gliding on a web of interlocking magnetic levitation tracks. Since the future arrives through the channels of mass consumerism, everything has to be familiar and cheap in order to sell.

The Law of Accelerating Returns is matched by the Law of Accelerating Boredom

People think that what they want from the future is better living through technology, but what they actually want is to be surprised all the time. They don't want flying cars because it's a more efficient and convenient method of getting from A to B. They want it because it's novel. The common folk statistic is that technological changes in the last 10 years have outstripped changes in the previous 90, but the flip side is that changes that would have blown people away 90 years ago elicit a mild shrug now.

The fact that we don't see any buffering icons puts the fiction in science fiction

We take for granted how acclimated we are to quirks in user-interfaces, that we end up excluding quirks from science-fiction. For example, when Minority Report was released, we didn't imagine that Tom Cruise's character would be making multiple flicks of the wrist because of mistaken gesture recognition. We didn't imagine that when the interstellar rescue video beams through space in Planet of the Apes it would have a buffering icon or that it would require a team of video anthropologists applying codec after codec. We didn't imagine that any time Captain Kirk fired a nuclear weapon, he would have to pull out a credit card-sized electronic book of numbers that would have to be confirmed by his Secretary of Defense. Or that to input the location of where to send the Starship Enterprise, you would have to type .com or .net at the end of every address. The future will be as awkward as the future we live in today.

The future is boring because it arrives in waves of hype and prototypes until the people are already inured, but ready for it

The basic thought experiment according to the banality of futurism is, "Imagine that the future is boring." This can be broken down further into sub-thought-experiments:

Imagine that not everybody has access to the technology. We always assume that some new great technology is going to liberate everybody. Imagine that some medical advance does provide some really cool sci-fi outcome (cyborgs, immortality), but it's only for the very very rich.

Imagine that some people are disinterested in the technology. There is still the vast unconnected proportion of the population that will remain that way because of disinterest. Some people have no need to get online, and would rather watch TV and stick with their current menial job. Likewise, some people may have no interest in alien life forms, in living forever, in abundant wealth for everybody, in the cure for all diseases, or in even understanding the grand unifying theory of everything. Take, for example, the cure for all diseases. There's just some people who would rather not take any medicine.

Imagine that there are differing levels of quality for the technology. There may be immortality, for example, but there will be a premium version, where you're preserved just as you were when you were 26, and a lite version, where you're just dithering in your final years indefinitely.

Imagine that the unveiling of the technological advance is spread over multiple generations. For example, the cure for cancer, which is already being smeared across the years, starts off with coping with cancer, then curing it with a low probability of success, then curing it with a high probability of success, and then finally it's fully gone. By the time the fourth generation comes around, the "cure for cancer" will not be heralded as some major turning point. Just look at the banality of curing polio.

The initial trials of cryonics will be like Lasik or chemo, i.e. a hassle you have to repeat every couple decades

One way to think about cryonics is that it's just better healthcare or just better health insurance. Consider this scenario: First, you sign up for a full-body cryo, taking out a life insurance policy for $200,000. Then 20 years later, you get cancer and are frozen. 50 years later, cancer is cured and they unfreeze you and cure your cancer. But now you're an old man in the year 2082. While as core diseases like cancer and heart disease are cured, people are still dying of old age.

And so you decide to sign-up for cryo again and take out another life insurance policy, this time for 75,000 yuan since costs have gone up and you're now in China. But you don't have enough money to afford that yet and the job market is completely changed. So you go back to school, take out a student loan, then try to get a job with a company that offers cryo as a benefit. 30 years later, you die of old age and go back into cryo.

You then wake up 100 years later, old age is cured, but people can still die of car accidents. However, there are portable cryo facilities in ambulances so that, if you have the right insurance, you can be preserved right then on the spot. And so you go back to school and take out another life insurance policy.

According to this pattern, cryo becomes kind of like Lasik, which you need to have every 10-20 years—i.e. It's a hassle. In each of those times you get frozen and reawakened, you have to go through the rigmarole of re-connecting with new descendants who may or may not be interested in you. You have to re-build your financial base and maybe learn a new language to integrate with the dominant hegemony. Maybe by the second or third time you do cryo, you think, "You know what, if I knew it was going to be this much of a hassle to wait for immortality, I wouldn't have done it!"

The initial versions of mind-uploading will be bottles of consciousness that can wiggle wheelchairs with thought

The banality principle of futurism could be applied to mind uploading in interesting ways. Imagine we have mind uploading, but it isn't the ideal scenario and not everybody does it. For example, your mind is uploaded to a computer (with redundant backups of course), and that computer is attached to a motorized wheelchair and there is a screen with a virtual rendition of your face. At this stage of mind uploading, they are very good at figuring input, but they haven't figured output much. So, they're able to attach cameras to your wheelchair and give your computerized mind an HD stream of the real world. But your ability to interact with the world is severely limited. Output is controlled by general neural field activity, and therefore while you can move your wheelchair, you can only do so clumsily. And while you can respond with synthesized speech, you can respond with only 20 or so sentences. Perhaps there is a monitor on a screen attached to your wheelchair with a 3D rendition of your face, but you can only give it three expressions, smiling, frowning, or neutral.

At this point, there are about 10,000 people in the world who do this, and yes, they live forever, but it's a shoddy existence. These uploaded minds aren't that interesting to deal with, and so funding for further development stops. Whereas before, the drive to upload minds was to save those who had vital organs dying on them. But now that drive is gone. If you aren't uploaded, you can choose to let yourself die a natural death, or you can live in this limbo mind-upload wheelchair land for who knows how many decades until they improve the interfaces.

The shocking thing about the future is that future shock doesn't really happen: As change accelerates so does our boredom

The shocking thing about the future is that future shock doesn't really happen: As change accelerates so does our boredom. Alvin Toffler predicted that Future Shock would be an increasingly common affliction, with people increasingly unable to cope with changes in their everyday life. However, the reality is that modern humans are more or less capable of accepting rapid change. People who are upset with future shock have been and continue to be culled by society. For example, those who stuck to factory jobs in Detroit rather than switching cities or to different types of work have become disgruntled. Perhaps they are too old to resort to crime, but their disaffection, if it didn't motivate their Gen X or Millennial children to do differently, might have lead to crime in their children, who were then jailed and removed from the reproductive and society pool.

Someone living in Alvin Toffler's time saw the rapid proliferation of automobiles followed by the ascendancy of airplanes. The logical conclusion back then was that we'd all be shuttling to space with our personal robots by now. If the pace of lifestyle change continued to modern times, perhaps we'd all be drooling in future shock. But the reality is that while technological change continues at an accelerating pace, lifestyle change has slowed down a bit, while we've become more accustomed to these changes. Nobody today believes that the tools they use today will exist tomorrow, but we know that we'll adapt. Instead of lying on the bed of a truck fantasizing about space travel, the young, bored hipster snaps his fingers and complains, "Where is our damn flying car!"

Today isn't like the Jetsons because all the spectacular bits of technology have been filed off in the name of user-friendliness

Part of why there is a banality of futurism is because we compensate for future shock. Businesses are still clamoring to bring broadband to the other 30% or so of Americans who don't have it. We'll bend over backward making it seem user-friendly and approachable, saying "Hey, you can watch TV from it!" or "You can keep in touch with your grandkids!" In this way, all futurism becomes in some ways boring and old-fashioned. The writers of science-fiction are over-eager for the future. They're novelty-seekers. But the vast majority of people are skeptical toward novelty. Change makes them uneasy. And it's not just a token resistance that is eventually papered over, but the kind of resistance that shapes change. All the strange or awkward parts of a new technology get filed off, usually under the banner of "user-friendliness," which dilutes anything wild or spectacular. It's no surprise people often complain, "Where is the future promised in The Jetsons." It's already here, but it's presented as so natural a part of our everyday existence, people hardly notice.