Geeky fun

This evening I am participating in an informal tech meetup here at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver. We each take turns getting up and talking about the projects we’ve been working on, and getting feedback from each other.

There is something so wonderful about the energy in the room of people talking about something they love, to other people who really appreciate the hard work and design decisions that go into a project.

This all feels kind of the opposite of a corporate sales presentation (at least the ones I’ve seen). It’s fine if things go wrong, if the demo crashes and you need to restart. That’s all part of the realness of it.

It would be nice if more of the interactions in life between people were infused that same sense of shared love and appreciation.


Just imagine, for the sake of argument, that everything you say or do can be recorded for posterity. This isn’t really such a stretch — we are already giving up our collective privacy for the convenience of carrying around those smart phones in our pockets.

So suppose that every gesture you make gets recorded, and instantly baked into a server somewhere. I would argue that this creates an opportunity.

With the appropriate supporting technology, you will be able to see yourself in earlier moments. In fact, you will be able to layer on those moments, creating various avatars of yourself.

One can imagine a new way of dealing with one’s past, one’s legacy. Not through regret, but through creative editing. If there was something about yourself that you didn’t like, you will be able to use technology to purge it — to remake yourself, to become pure.

I’m not so sure this will be a good thing…

Every city will have one

After seeing Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate his version of the telephone, the mayor of a major American city exclaimed, with uncontained enthusiasm, “I can see a time when every city will have one!”

I think it’s important not to fall into that trap with technologies that are just around the corner. In order to fully understand the eventual impact of a technology, we shouldn’t think of it as a rare exotic creature. Rather, we need to imagine that it is ordinary, humdrum, the thing you don’t even notice because it’s there all the time, like your chair, or the light switch on your wall.

It is precisely the invention that becomes so ubiquitous that we no longer think about it which transforms our world. The wondrous and exotic technology that stays wondrous and exotic — like the personal jetpack (which has existed in one form or another for nearly a century, but has never come into common use) — is a failure.

It’s the technology that you don’t notice — the pen, the water filter, indoor plumbing — that is the real triumph. If twenty years from now we are still walking around thinking of augmented reality as something amazing, then we will have failed. But if we’re all using it without even knowing it is there, then the future that some of us are now envisioning will truly have arrived.

How self-driving cars will take over

The technology for self-driving cars already works. In fact, it works spectacularly well. Not only are the latest algorithms able to drive vehicles in the real world, but they can also do something far more difficult: They can anticipate the strange and irrational behaviors of human drivers, and react to those behaviors in safe ways.

Which is a far more difficult problem than those algorithms will need to tackle in a world where all cars are driven by computer. In a future where there are no human drivers, traffic will essentially be a physical analog to today’s internet packet switching. Rather than many independent and often conflicting decision makers, the system will consist of cooperating actors with complete knowledge of each others’ goals and priorities.

In essence, what will superficially look like independent vehicles will actually be a single highly granular mass transit system. The network will efficiently weave its “packets” through that system, bringing people to their intended destinations in an optimal way.

But how do we get here from there? What would induce people to give up their beloved habit of driving? I think there is an analogy with smoking: Cigarettes were once ubiquitous in the culture. But after people were faced with the stark facts of the effects on life expectancy, smoking fell out of favor.

So here’s my prediction: Google, which is currently bankrolling much of the development of self-driving cars, will eventually realize that it needs to create a large scale working example. It will then design an economic inducement for some town or city, somewhere in the U.S., to go “driverless”. In that town, deaths and maimings will plummet. Life expectancy will tick upward dramatically.

Once the populace is faced with the facts on the ground (literally), our culture will shift accordingly. In a few years we will reach a tipping point, after which the entire country will quickly go driverless (except for some hobbyists here and there, under controlled conditions).

In a few years, people will look back on earlier decades and wonder how anybody could ever have lived in a society where to go out on the road meant risking your life.

Morse code

The other day I mentioned season 7, episode 7 of the great Matthew Weiner series Mad Men. If you’ve seen the episode, you know it’s a key moment for the character played by Robert Morse. From the beginning of the show, I was fascinated by the casting or Mr. Morse as Bertram Cooper, because of his earlier signature role as J. Pierrepont Finch in the 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying — as well as in the 1967 film of the same name.

In a way, the world of Mad Men is Weiner’s homage, looking back half a century, to the world of How to Succeed, except that the latter was describing a contemporary phenomenon. Morse was born in 1931 — one year after the discovery of planet Pluto — and he was a young man of 30 when he won the Tony award for How to Succeed. Now he is 83, and half a century has been framed by his two iconic roles of Finch and Cooper.

The pairing in Mad Men of Robert Morse and John Hamm, as grizzled old veteran and ambitious young up-and-comer, is well paralleled by the earlier pairing between Rudy Vallee and Morse a half century earlier, as boss Biggley and Finch. In both cases it is obvious that the older man recognizes himself in the younger one, perhaps as he was back in the day, when his soul was filled with ambition and fire.

But here’s the funny thing: Like Robert Morse, who rose to fame in his callow youth, Rudy Vallee had risen to stardom in the early 1930s as a musical idol, the first bona fide pop superstar of the twentieth century. By 1932 — when he was the same age that Morse would be when he won his Tony — young Rudy Vallee was arguably the most popular singing star in the world.

Maybe there is a code at work here, with Morse as a sort of connective tissue, a link in the “old man / young man” genre between the long distant early 1930s and now. I wonder whether, early in his film career, Vallee ever played the young man opposite an old and grizzled actor, somebody who had, once upon a time, played a young man on the stage. Perhaps the chain stretches backward through the generations.

Just maybe, forty or fifty years from now, John Hamm will play the old guy opposite some rising young actor, in a nostalgic tale about our own time. And the chain will be unbroken.


Imagine it is the year 2045. All little children are fitted with either cyber-contact lenses or lens implants. Young Ada, age one, who is just taking her first steps, can see not only from her own eyes, but from any point of view.

This child is going to learn to walk, to point and gesture, to pick up and grasp objects, in a physical reality where her viewpoint can wander freely — much the way the players of many of today’s video games can freely change their point of view.

As Ada grows, she will learn to balance and to manipulate the objects around her, to open doors, to run and play, with a freely ranging set of virtual eyes. These are not skills she will be conscious of learning, but rather an intrinsic part of the process of how her developing brain and body will learn to navigate in the world.

She will see what is behind her as easily as what is in front. And before she enters a room, she will be able to look around the corner and know what is there.

Like Moses atop Mount Nebo, we will be able to watch young Ada enter this promised land, but not to follow her there. We may well be the last generation in history to lack the power of extraproprioception.

The Moon wasn’t a planet either

Today we got the first ever close-up images of Pluto, as New Horizons began its fly by. But tomorrow will be the real show, when the spacecraft passes within 7,750 miles of the little planet, and will be able to take gorgeous high resolution photos.

I know that technically I’m supposed to say “dwarf planet”, but old habits die hard. I grew up with Pluto, so for most of my life it has been not only a full-fledged planet, but the planet of mystery — the last outpost of our solar system, the final major local way point Captain Kirk would have passed before heading toward the universe beyond.

Coincidentally, I just finally got around to seeing Mad Men, season 7 episode 7, which takes place on July 20, 1969, the day of the Moon Landing. Needless to say, the episode conveyed the thrill that people everywhere shared as the events of that day unfolded. The Moon wasn’t a planet either, but it was still a very big deal.

I am glad to see so many people transfixed by the images streaming back from New Horizons. Among people I know there is a genuine sense of excitement and wonder. This is indeed something historic, our first close-up look at the mysterious planet Pluto since it was first discovered in 1930.

And I am so glad they didn’t call it Goofy.

Tomorrow isn’t what it used to be, part 4

I think it would be hard for Hollywood to green light a straight-ahead movie about an optimistic future. In some alternate universe, where our culture still embraced optimism, Tomorrowland might have been that movie.

But Tomorrowland turned out to be a film that stayed on message for our more cynical times: That dreams of a better world are hopeless at best, destructive at worst. The best we can do is to reject silly naive optimism and accept that the world is a grim and unforgiving place, before our own misplaced utopianism manages to get us all killed.

So where do you go when a better and kinder tomorrow cannot be found anywhere in the world? That’s easy: You go inward. The mind itself is our last refuge, the one place where the incessant self-interested come-ons of our modern media machine cannot completely reach.

Which leads us to Inside Out. When society itself feels under siege, bereft of love and connection, there is still one society that can never really be torn apart, where you know you will always be loved: Your own self, a place that Marvin Minsky termed “The Sociey of Mind.”

Back in 1972, Woody Allen spun David Reuben’s book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask into a fabulous parody that perfectly capture the zeitgeist of its time.

In one of the many skits that comprise that film, he pretty much invented the genre of “Aspects of the psyche represented as divergent characters looking out of a control room at reality.” But he meant the entire concept to be absurd.

Inside Out, in contrast, is not meant to be absurd — it’s meant to be received as a comedy, but a comedy based on a serious truth. And unlike anything Woody Allen would have produced in 1972, it most definitely wants to tug at our heart strings.

The film is saying that yes, we humans have great difficulty communicating with each other, let alone helping each other to a better tomorrow, but hey, that’s not really our fault. People are complicated, and it’s hard enough to focus on what’s going on inside our own heads. I think that might be a message for our times.

Back in 1960 John F. Kennedy talked about “The New Frontier.” He meant (to quote his words) “the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

Those days seem long gone. Now we may have a Newer Frontier — the frontier of simply getting through the day, while trying, amid the cacophony of our iPhones and tweets and hashtags and posts and likes and texts and snapchats and whatnot, to find some meaning inside our own heads.

Tomorrow isn’t what it used to be, part 3

If you were born, say, in 1974, it would be logical for you to believe that our culture had always been suffused with cynicism. But to be a child in the 1960s was to be bathed in an aura of hope, and a sense — never again to be repeated in the ensuing half century — that technological progress and the creation of a better, kinder world were mutually compatible ideals.

Children in 1964 looked at the many flags of the United Nations and saw a promise of peace and unity. To that generation of young minds, the futuristic architecture in post-war comic books came to symbolize an ideal of universal well being and friendship among nations.

Strange as such a thought might seem in today’s world, the fantasy utopia suggested by the gleaming cityscapes of Jor-El’s planet Krypton were understood by children to be aspirational — a shorthand for our own inevitable march of progress.

Tomorrowland begins by dangling this iconography of a better tomorrow, hinting that the ideal the world had so long ago given up on might somehow still exist. Bird may be revising his own childhood memories here. He is just old enough, having been born in 1957, to have experienced first-hand the sense of optimism that had suffused the 1964 World’s Fair. Perhaps he was originally motivated to explore that vision.

But much of the audience for a major commercial Hollywood film in 2015 would never have experienced that sense of shared optimism. Most moviegoers today grew up in the shadow of Watergate, of our bombing of Cambodia, of tales of the peace movement having turned bitter and violent, of the cynicism that descended as our nation started turning inward to nurse its wounds.

I think the key phrase here is “turning inward”. More tomorrow.