Friday, July 06, 2007

Quote of the Day ('Markets in Everything' Edition)

by Tom Bozzo

Charlie Stross:
There are thirty years' worth of future shock condensed into this one news item.
Now, go to Charlie's Diary and read the whole thing...



Now that you're back, here are Charlie's bonus questions:
[A]t which step in this narrative would my 1977-era audience first say "you've got to be shitting me!" ... and when would they start moaning and holding their head in their hands?

My candidate answers (YMMV), from Charlie's comments:

[T]he "shitting me" would be no later than the portable communicator and information can opener stage -- not necessarily the concept... so much as the "they will be cheap enough that university students and not-necessarily-rich people from LDCs will own them in large numbers" part (yet there will not be a single supersonic airplane in civilian service).

The moaning stage would likely vary a lot with the audience. There are economists who would take the "eastern gold-farming sweatshops" news and say, "Cool! Markets in everything!!" In fact, it would say something about the level of development in countries where labor is cheap enough to make gold farming profitable.

You'd probably need to explain that the "electronic mail" will have killed off the postal letter, that indeed the mail will consist largely of solicitations for credit cards and credit-card bills (and that many people will have several, not carry cash or use checks, and often owe the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of dollars at usurious interest rates), which will probably be disappointing.

Quantifying the volume of spam e-mail would probably do it for the moaning, if nothing else, though there would be reassurance that there were also computer programs that will automatically get rid of most of it while rarely also throwing away letters from your mom.

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Depending on the audience of circa 1997 people, the problem is not so much the prior assumptions than the need to make straight-line extrapolations from the present.

By 1977 email was well-established in certain demographics. Personal computers were still for hobbyists, but the concept of a computer for home use wasn't unfamiliar.

BBS's, USENET, MUDs, DND, Zork, etc, were all inventions of the mid-to-late 1970s, and are recognizably the same sort of thing as WOW.

And while 1977 was before my time, I suspect that the techno-geek futurism of flying cars, monorails and orbiting space stations was well-established enough to constipate any shock at the rate at which computer technology has advanced in thirty years.
I basically agree that the concept of networked computers wouldn't be alien to a '77 computer hobbyist. In reply to another comment at Stross's, I'd said (over there) that the texty WWW of the early '90s wouldn't have been incompatible with the hobbyist computers of the time. (Both the Apple II and the TRS-80 Model I were introduced that year.) That e-mail was well-established is a tougher sell -- my undergrad years were 1985-1990, even did some computer-based research at the time, and saw vanishingly little electronic messaging going. The take-off point was more like early-90s among people with .edu addresses.

I think ubiquity would be another matter -- the sales of those early home computers were trivial by today's standards.

IMHO, it's universal mobile connectivity, tied in with lots of portable computing, is what wasn't so much on the radar. Sure, the *idea* of the Star Trek communicator wouldn't be foreign, but actually putting them in everyone's hands with calling (albeit not to orbit) being essentially free is another matter.
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