You can’t live in the future for more than five minutes

Today a colleague told me “I wish I could live in the future”. My immediate response was to point out that this is de facto impossible, even if you were to possess the requisite time traveling tech. I was actually thinking, as I said this, of those immortal words of Buckaroo Bonzai: “No matter where you go, there you are.” I didn’t bother quoting Mr. Bonzai (co-inventor of the oscillation overthruster, for those of you who didn’t know) because I was pretty sure my colleague would not have gotten the reference.

My larger point was that the human brain is simply not wired to sustain a sense of novelty. Unfortunately, all new things on our event horizon become reduced to the mere normal with astonishing rapidity, and our voracious and fickle appetite for the new and different can all too quickly lead us to consume the very change we wish to enjoy. We eat the future for breakfast, by mid-morning we have indigestion, and by lunchtime we are hungry again.

One of the projects of Will Wright’s wonderful Stupid Fun Club is a robotic waiter. Unsuspecting customers in an ordinary looking diner find themselves being served by a very polite robot, an attentive cybernetic being crammed with mechanical relays, electric motors and blinking LED lights. The results, surreptitiously recorded on video, are rather interesting. After a moment, most customers simply take their unusual new waiter in stride. After all, they’ve seen robots in the movies — why not at their local restaurant?

To make things more interesting, Will and his colleagues then have the robo-waiter get the order wrong. The unfailingly polite mechanical servant brings back coffee instead of tea, or a bagel instead of biscuits. At this point all customers react in the same way. Completely putting aside the wonders of being served by a mechanical man, a marvel of the future, a harbinger of the world to come, they just get annoyed. They ordered tea, not coffee, dammit.

And so I come to my thesis. Even if you were to build a time machine, put on your silver lamé suit, set your flux capacitor to full forward thrust, and emerge two hundred years in the future, you would have only about five minutes to enjoy the sensation, more or less. During that time you might marvel at the wonders of antigravity, the graceful arc of the protective energy dome over your city, the glint of sunlight off the floating skyscrapers in the sky above, or the way your brain tickles from the seamless techno-telepathy that that appears to have rendered both TV and the internet obsolete.

But after about a minute or so, your brain’s novelty normalization filter will begin to kick in. Within three minutes everything around you will start to seem obvious, even prosaic. After five minutes you’ll once again simply be living in the ordinary present. Yes, it will be a present that contains floating cities, free infinite energy, shimmering holograms you can control with pure thought. But none of that will matter once you get used to it.

It will just be normal.

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