26 December 2008

where's the next leap forward?

I hosted the annual "Apollo 8 anniversary" dinner yesterday (each year my family comes up with another thing to celebrate on 25 December — last year it was Sir Isaac Newton's birthday), and, appropriately enough, my youngest brother got the From the Earth to the Moon DVD series that Tom Hanks partly directed and wrote. We watched the disc with the dramatisation of the moon landing on it over dessert.

Now, in case it's not obvious by now, everyone in my immediate family is a geek. We watched a few sitcoms on TV when I was a kid, but not nearly as much as we did documentaries. Wildlife and history were fine, but if it was about space exploration, we were all glued to the set.

I wasn't born yet when the moon shot happened, but I did grow up in a small town that looked more like the late 1960s when I was old enough to remember it in the late 1970s. And what I keep thinking lately, at the end of 2008, is: we haven't come that far.

People love to point out how computers have changed our lives since that time. Look at the technology that was used for the moon shot, though, or that Douglas Engelbart had demonstrated the year before. The technology has been refined since then, but it's still the same technology. We're still using it for the same things they did in 1968, maybe in different proportions (in the sense that computer games are no longer the privilege of MIT students working late hours when no-one wants cycles on the mainframe and they have time for a little fun, for instance), but it's still the same things.

Some things I would like to see us move forward on:
  • Greener technology. We've been talking about solar, wind, and tide technology for decades — I did a project on it back in 1977 with a classmate and won a school award. Okay, we were in Grade 2 and drew a poster about how pollution is bad, but the point is, it's not news. Bobby Kennedy had cutting down on pollution as part of his platform in the presidential primaries. There are amazing opportunities here, but people continue to see it as a bad thing to go green.
  • Housing. I've been thinking about this more since I bought an apartment for the first time last summer. The new place is about two-thirds the size of my last rental, and really I'm still organising it, but it's forced me to have to consider how to make a fixed space livable. Mostly I've been doing it by creating spaces that can change (watching Transformers with my brothers seems to have had a lasting effect!). Even though the layout is very thoughtful and doesn't have much "dead space," I think it could be more efficient. As much as I love my current bedroom set, I could see switching to a loft bed or a cabinet bed in the future, and reclaiming the floor space to use for active use and for more storage.
  • Sustainable clothing. Throwaway fashion that demands you junk clothing because it's a season or two old is ridiculous. The vintage look is the start of the rebellion against it, and so is the utilitarian look promoted by The Gap, American Apparel, and other shops. But I want actual sustainable clothes, too. The sweater I get the most compliments on is one I made in the autumn of 2001. It's been mended three times now (both cuffs and a sleeve), and I know it's only a matter of time before it's unrepairable, but it's always worked because it's stylish, practical, and unusual enough to be a conversation piece. It's never been in fashion, so it can never go out, yet it looks good. I want more clothes like that.
  • Real food. The American moon exploration effort led to the invention of a lot of things, including Tang. Tang is wonderful if you're in a space capsule, or camping, or somewhere you can't obtain or keep real orange juice. Real orange juice is wonderful when you can get it. As with clothing, we have to stop making food choices for abstract reasons (including the continuously evolving diet mythology), and start considering food because it's good. Good means high-quality, unadorned, and not specially altered just to make it more salable. Cost efficiencies are literally killing us. The locavore movement (in its non-snobby mode) is a good start here.
As near as I can figure, this is the trick we need to pull off: to embrace new technology when it will actually better our lives, and to embrace older modes when that will better our lives more than some newfangled way someone is selling us. And, of course, the wisdom to tell the difference. That seems to be the next leap forward.

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