Many people go to movies to see visions of the future. There is that gee-whiz moment when you see some fantasy version of future technology, and a little voice in your brain says “I want one of those!”
Just to list a few of many examples – the “Star Trek” transporter, “Star Wars” holovideo (well ok, that one is really a rip-off from “Forbidden Planet”), the “Minority Report” gesture wall, or flying cars from countless films like “Blade Runner”, “Back to the Future” and “The Fifth Element”.
One odd thing about all of these things is that their gee-whiz factor stems partly from their very unreality. We know in our gut that these are visions not from our real future, but from the future as it might exist in some alternate universe. Each of them breaks one law or another that we sort of already know about, even if we’ve never really thought about it before.
The transporter violates so many laws of physics, from the laws of thermodynamics to laws of computational complexity, that it fairly screams “Not really possible!” Similarly, the coolness of the holovideo lies precisely in the fact that it seems to defy fundamental laws of optics – “projected” light is bending and scattering in mid-air, without bouncing off of anything. (Full disclosure: We actually worked on something like this in our lab a while back, but we cheated. Our “holodust” system bounced light off the dust in the air).
The “Minority Report” wall seems vaguely plausible until you start to think how it would feel to hold your arms up in the air all day, just to use your computer. It wouldn’t be very pleasant. But that’s precisely the point. We are being told, on a subliminal level, that this is not really our future, but a fantasy of our future.
Flying cars actually exist, but they are noisy, they consume alarming quantities of fuel, and their powerful ducted fans tend to create very unpleasant effects upon anyone unfortunate enough to be standing underneath one. This one is really a fantasy not about flying cars per se, but about effortless anti-gravity. In other words, a leap from real physics to fantasy physics.
Ironically, many of the innovations that have turned out to have the greatest impact on our lives are the least visible. We never notice the air conditioner (until it stops working). Yet it has completely transformed our nation’s landscape. For example, without A.C. there could be no office buildings or other high rises in places like Atlanta Georgia – still be fairly rural agrarian communities.
Similarly, the washing machine was a revelation when it first arrived on the scene. Hard as it is to imagine now (society has evolved quite a bit), many women were once virtually slaves to laundry – needing to spend large numbers of hours each day hand-washing clothes for a family.
There are many inventions like this. Completely unglamorous – we don’t even notice them – but they have transformed our lives, in some cases vastly for the better.
Perhaps the real importance of an invention can be measured as roughly inverse to its gee-whiz factor. Certainly not always, but often enough that it might be a useful yardstick (aha, another really useful, if unglamorous, invention…).