Inspector Gadget gets his marching orders

23 Feb

Simon Ings writes:

The trouble with giving the world a programme as fondly remembered as the BBC’s technology show Tomorrow’s World is that everything you say about the future forever afterwards has to refer back to it.

Result: Evan Davis on this morning’s episode of Today, BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme, having the devil’s own job trying to get cheery gadget stories out of me, in my capacity as Arc’s managing editor, and former Tomorrow’s World presenter Maggie Philbin. The pair of us were no help at all, as you can hear here. We were much more interested in talking about what the future would feel like, how we would learn about it and how we could shape it, and—

Davis’s gadget ploy did get his vast listening audience up to speed with the idea that we were talking about the future in less than fifteen seconds; it was neatly done, and only a fool would cavil at it. But it does raise a question: how did the future become synonymous with gadgets? After all (I think I remembered to say this) the future (and Arc) is about everything, not just the last shiny out of Silicon Valley or Akihabara.

The answer (and it’s not one that technocrats are at all comfortable with) is that gadgets are more visible when they’re promised than when they’re delivered. Once they make it into the real, human world, they bed down in this rich, nuanced, fluid way that robs them of their strangeness. So when a dinner party in rural Pakistan is mistakenly targeted by a US drone, we don’t talk about “a malfunction by America’s robot army”, though that is precisely what it is.

The gadgets are never the point of the future, because they get caught up in and harnessed to ordinary human lives. They’re naturalised, then domesticated and ultimately forgotten. In his early stories, J G Ballard had no end of fun rewriting contemporary news reports as science fiction stories, simply by shifting his emphasis away from the people and onto the things. That trick still works today.

But it’s just a trick. It doesn’t reflect any deeper truth. The future is not technological. The mistakes we make, and the prisons we build for ourselves, and the dangers we run, are ours alone. It’s a lousy builder who blames their tools. The future is not in our stars and it’s certainly not in our technology. The future is driven by our restless appetite for change – and in our dangerous ability to get used to just about anything we do to ourselves.

Buy Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins now.

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