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Welcome to the Future, it's Just Like the Past

Why do we think robotaxis or hyperloops or smarthomes will get rid of our annoyance with technology?

by Jason Koebler
Jun 5 2015, 4:15pm

Image: MTSOfan/Flickr

Screengrab via Dan Tentler

Here we have the fundamental problem with the blinding optimism we sometimes associate with The Future.

You haven't run out of lightbulbs, and the lightbulb you do have hasn't burnt out, but your smartphone-connected, energy efficient lightbulb needs a firmware update. In the end, the problem is the same—you still need to stumble your way to the kitchen, and it'd sure help if you could have some damn light to help you out.

The future isn't a utopia. It's (hopefully) not a dystopia. It's just a normal old averageopia. Technology is designed for humans, a fallible, adaptable, and ultimately unpredictable species living in an unpredictable world, and new technology doesn't always solve our problems. More often than not, these solutions create their own set of problems that upon closer inspection are just like the old ones.

Welcome to the future. It's just like the past.

"Your trip to a space hotel will be delayed because the Sun put off yet another solar flare and oh my god that's the third time this year my business trip to Google Space has been pushed back"

This morning I took the subway to the bus station to get to a wedding in Maryland. The vast majority of the time, the trip to the subway takes a half hour. So, 45 minutes before my bus was to leave, I walked into the subway station and saw a huge DELAY sign. I left the subway, panicked, and pulled up Uber. But the delay caused surge pricing that I wasn't really willing to pay, and even if I did hop in an Uber, I still wouldn't have made it to the station on time with the current traffic, according to Google Maps.

If I was living in The Past, I would have maybe taken a horse and buggy to Maryland a couple days ago. Or maybe in The More Recent Past I would have been able to afford a car myself. But the subway normally works just fine, and so, mostly, I don't have to give myself any sort of buffer to get anywhere.

Maybe a more prepared adult would have left for the station earlier, just to be safe. But, as someone who has grown accustomed to things working, I didn't. I never do. Because technology has given me the luxury to screw around on Reddit and hit the snooze button a few times. I took the normally functioning subway technology for granted, and created an extremely stressful morning for myself because, well, normally this stuff works. But still I was frustrated that technology didn't work for me this time.

What if I took a driverless Tesla presented by Uber to the hyperloop station? I would have left, maybe like, an hour before the wedding? What would I have done with that time? Browse some memes? Wait in line at hyperloop security? Drop off some fellow travelers at work because An Algorithm thought it'd be efficient for us to pick them up on the way?

As we get fancy new technology, we get fancy new annoyances that feel a hell of a lot like the old annoyances. A human being is nothing if not adaptable, and we get accustomed to, bored with, and ultimately frustrated by things that, when first introduced, were utterly fantastical. Louis CK's bit about the miracle that is air travel (and inflight WiFi) is trotted out all too regularly, but he's not entirely wrong when he says that "everything's amazing and nobody's happy."

Most people have not one, but maybe a half dozen computers that are more powerful than those used to send men to the moon, and you've already discarded a handful of others that we believe have grown obsolete or have otherwise garnered our disfavor. When can I upgrade this piece of crap phone I have in my pocket? Why can't our computers-on-wheels drive themselves already? Why do our planes and trains crash? Why isn't the subway working?

For technology to work, it needs to serve humans. And humans are really quite a terrible species to serve.

Maybe the person you're sharing a robotaxi forgot their backpack, and has to run back inside. They will call for it before they've gotten their check at the restaurant. Hackers will hack robotaxi navigation systems. Trolls will order robotaxis and never show up for them. The Occupy Wall Street 6.0 protest will block the roads.

Some psychopath will scream his head off on the hyperloop. As morbid as it is, someone will commit suicide by jumping in front of a maglev subway train. Police activity will create delays.

You will be very thirsty and your smart, connected water bottle will need a firmware update before you can drink from it. You will still lose service on your SpaceX satellite internet when you go underground. People will die because they drink too much and/or too little Soylent. Your dumb kid will spill milk all over your robot servant and the floor and you'll have to clean it up by hand.

Your trip to a space hotel will be delayed because the Sun put off yet another solar flare and oh my god that's the third time this year my business trip to Google Space has been pushed back.

Some drunk motherfucker will do this to your drone:

Gif: YouTube

And you will be annoyed by this. And that's OK. This morning, after five trains and far too much sprinting, I made the bus as it was about to pull away. I was dripping with sweat and very thirsty. The WiFi is broken. I see nothing to suggest that, future or not, the human experience of dealing-with-stressful-shit is going to change. So, just make the most of it. Tie your shoes before you leave the house, because the future will still have plenty of hustling. And fill up your water bottle whenever you've got the chance—preferably not one of those bluetooth-connected ones.