When I was a wee boy I looked forward to several televisual events every week: Gamesmaster, Doctor Who, The Crystal Maze and Tomorrow’s World. I’m sure there were more but my memory is a mire of ZX Spectrum games loading, my dilapidated Raleigh Burner and grazed knees. I remember the presenters talking of such far off times as the year 2000. One particular episode had a synthesiser that was played by breaking beams of light with one’s hands. Now that was the future my friends! Unbelievable. The Sinclair C5, hoverboards in Back to the Future II, jetpacks, teleportation!
OK, sorry, I extrapolated a little far there, but that’s how it felt every week when Howard Stableford and Anna Ford prophesied The Future!
The year 2000 came and went with cheap but colourful explosives purchased from corner shops, and several thousand gallons of Cava and similar fizzy pish. The future still seemed so far away, we had been duped friends. Bamboozled! Hoodwinked!
It was this year I went to university, having made a tidy sum of money ‘helping’ businesses to ‘reduce the risk posed by the millenium Bug’. The world wide web had been knocking about for years by this point, and most people of my age were passing savvy with the intricacies of Hotmail, Yahoo! and Geocities. Animated GIFs of construction signs littered the virtual landscape. In my halls, I had my first experiences of ethernet to my own PC and download speeds topping 14kBps (yes kiloBYTES!). I like many of that time became adopters of peer-to-peer networking and Napster was the most launched software package on my ailing K6-2 450 machine with 16MB of RAM and a Voodoo Banshee. File sharing abounded, we amassed gigabyte hoards of MP3s, completely destroying the music industry and leaving all musical artists destitute and record executives drinking their own piss and begging for burnt heels of yesterday’s bread. Only, as we know that didn’t happen at all.
But I digress. Although I had the power to download an album of Butthole Surfers’ mellifluous musical mastery in LESS THAN A WEEK, I looked upon my beige box humming in the corner of my brown room in hall, lit by the flickering light of my 15″ CRT monitor, and I still couldn’t fathom how my hoverboard and lounge pod on the Mars colony could be conjured in my lifetime. The future was still so far away.
By 2005, I was commuting to work every morning with a device the size of a matchbox which contained 2GB of music and a battery that lasted a week. Perfectly content was I with its retrospectively meagre storage, and revelled in the weekly reshuffle of which tunes I would listen to next. Broadband ADSL piped 512kbps of spectacular superfast bandwidth into my silver box PC. I had begun the gargantuan task of ripping all of my CDs to MP3. I cast my mind back to 1997 or so, when I, a spotty becurtained grunge devotee, would take the bus to my girlfriend’s house, my Panasonic personal casette player in my breast pocket, flipping a C90 to listen to the second album I had deigned to stransport. We had come a long way, but it still didn’t feel like the future.
Fast forward to now. A couple of events in the last couple of days have knocked my perspective askew. My considerably better half and I had exhausted the appealing content of our Sky+ box, both currently being broadcast and recorded and had decided to resume our Doctor Who marathon. I had invested little time in the good Doctor since Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal and was being caught up. So, I switched the surround system and fired up the PS3 and browsed to the Netflix applet. The software knew where we had broken off our viewing and selected the next episode for us. A banner then appeared reminding me that a payment had recently failed and that my account was in arrears. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried to input card details with a Playstation controller before, but is it chore worth no one’s time. I plucked up my laptop and lifted the lid. Ubuntu fired up to the log on screen before I had finished flexing the hinge, thanks to the lightning speed of the dual mSATA SSD hard disks within. I fired up my browser, input my new card details and cleared the balance. The whole episode took me perhaps two or three minutes.
I turn my attention back to the PS3. I select the episode again, same banner. I found myself infuriated at the fact that my account details weren’t instantly updated. I logged out and back in and was able to recommence my exploration of Tennant-as-Doctor’s escapades with Rose Tyler.
This morning on my morning commute, I plugged my headphones into what is ostensibly my mobile telephone, but in actuality, a computer, orders of magnitude more powerful than my lowly K6-2 rig. The device awoke, fired up my choice of music player, Google Play Music and recommenced playing the track I had paused as secondary action of removing my headphone jack from the unit the evening before. An hour or so later, I decided I wanted to listen to the newest Deftones album I hadn’t heard yet, after viewing a tweet someone hundreds of miles away had broadcast a few seconds earlier. I do not own the album. So I search on the Play Music app, and find it. Via a subscription service, for which I pay a moderate monthly stipend, I was allowed to almost instantaneously stream the compressed tracks over mobile broadband, and listen to it there and then. However, shortly after the first desultory chords began to ring in my oversized headphones, I entered a dead spot in signal for my particular mobile provider and the streaming ran out of buffer, pausing the track. I understand the subtleties of cellular communication reasonably well, so it is difficult to become angry at this. Shit happens, NOT LIKE NETFLIX! I fired up the wifi and connected to the train’s offering. But wait! What’s this?! CROSS COUNTRY WANT MONEY FOR THEIR WIFI! THE BRIGANDS!
It was then! Then my epiphany occurred. I stopped and thought about what a ridiculous situation this would be for my ten year old self, enraptured by the wonders of Tomorrow’s World, to comprehend. My generation is, like every generation, unique. My parents were born in the 50s, the so-called Baby Boomers, computers were the size of a room and cost a first world economy to buy and a crane to lift. The generation of today are brought up playing angry birds and streaming movies, gesture controlled touchscreens as intuitive as suckling. We lived through the slow but all-consuming rise of the computer, saw first hand how it changed everything. Today I can go to my Amazon account and download a digital copy of every CD I’ve ever bought through the site onto my computer. A service running on my machine provided by Google, can then suck up my newly acquired tracks and squirt them into its gargantuan cloud, seconds later I can stream them to a device the size of a pocket notebook in a fraction of a second and listen to them. I can fire up a device in my lounge and watch a significant percentage of the sum of all movie and TV ever broadcast via one service or another, and it happens in REALTIME.
Kids, we do live in the future, it may not have hoverboards and jetpacks, but great Scott! It’s fucking awesome!