Tuesday, September 05, 2023
I’m a boomer, I was born in the early 60’s. And I just need to leaf through some family photo albums to see how much our daily lives have changed over the last 60 years. A Belgian mobile phone operator this year ran a series of advertisements where somebody showed people in their 20s objects like a floppy disc, a walkman, or a Viewfinder toy, with the slogan “if you don’t know what these objects are, we got a special mobile phone plan for your generation”. Technology strongly influences behavior, it is hard to realize for younger people that there was a time when there were no mobile phones, and family, friends, or work colleagues weren’t reachable all the time. As a kid in the 70s I had books, toys, and board games, but I was already a teenager before I saw the first game console, and it played only Pong. I remember black & white TV, recording music from the radio on cassettes, record players with vinyl discs, my first computer with 1 kB of RAM, and lots of other things that would be hard to understand for somebody born this century. So, given the rapid change in technology and life over the last 60 years, I do not think hat this change will come to a halt. The objects I use frequently today will look quaint or unrecognizable to somebody in 60 years, and I today can’t even imagine the everyday items the people in 60 years will be using.
Starfield is science fiction, playing in the year 2330. Three centuries is a very long time if you consider everyday life, technology, and living standards. 300 years ago, in the early 1700s, people were still using candles and oil lamps to light their homes and were cooking on wood stoves. The nature of the Starfield game is that you frequently go through people’s homes and work spaces, usually to streal everything that isn’t attached. So you get a very detailed view how the writers of Starfield imagine everyday life in three centuries to be. And the lack of imagination is astounding, it seems that way of life and interior decoration will barely change in the next three centuries. Computers will still have flat screens and keyboards, and icon-based user interfaces. Even voice-controlled smart speakers are still state of the art in 2330.
That observation isn’t unique to Starfield. There is a lot of science fiction depiction in 2023 which looks less advanced than the household of the Jetsons, as drawn in 1963. And I think the big cultural difference is that in the 60s we still believed that technology would improve lives. George Jetson was shown having the 2-day work week, and even then worked just 1 hour per work day. Which was enough to afford an upper middle class lifestyle, robot maid included. Our belief in the future has gotten a lot darker in 2023. Earth is an uninhabitable wasteland in Starfield. 78 percent of American adults in 2023 believe that their children will have worse lives than they do. I couldn’t find numbers for 1963, but I’m pretty certain that is was the other way around then. Progress these days, for example in artificial intelligence, is greeted with concerns that it will destroy humanity. The more optimistic view that AI and automatization could lead to all of us having to work a lot less while keeping up a good standard of living, isn’t generally shared anymore.
We also appear curiously unaware of the social progress we have made. It was poignant how in the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington the media carefully avoided to quote MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. The uncomfortable truth is that these days the demand that children be judged by their character and not by the color of their skin is considered a conservative talking point, while progressives consider color-blindness a racist concept that doesn’t go far enough. Which isn’t to say that MLK’s dream has already fully come through, but the progress in all forms of social justice matters over the last 60 years has been enormous. In the early 60s the first states of the US just began decrimininalizing homosexuality, and transgender rights are a lot more modern than that. Given that workers’ rights and salaries have progressed a lot less over the past decades than social issues, the continued focus on identity politics in the US is a puzzle to me. It appears to me that activism towards greater economic equality would improve more lives faster, including lives of minority groups, than calls for slavery reparations. In global comparisons the correlation between lower income inequality and people being generally happier is very well established.
The big question is in how far our mistrust of actual technological and social progress will keep us from progressing further. Will our houses and lives in 2330 look like they are shown in Starfield, because we put a moratorium on labor-saving technology? Will our fear of the future stop us from having one? Will the Jetsons have the 2-hour work week, or will they work 5 jobs, children included?