The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



I still can't get over this PDA. A traveling computer, a personal computer in the most literal sense -- you keep it on your person. Looking at it, I get the same thrill I used to feel looking at the Z-183, back when it was new. At that time, I figured typewriter size was about as small as computers were going to get, that the floor had been reached, that everyone would soon own a laptop and the only things that would change from then on would be speed, power, and price. Instead, desktop machines have remained the standard, holding approximately steady in price, while laptops have shrunk to the size of textbooks, and their cost has shot up only slightly less than their power. I could trade my car in and still not have enough money to buy some of these fancy schmancy laptops -- they've become a status symbol in the business world, out of the reach of most ordinary people. But ordinary people still own watches and calculators and electronic organizers, and these have been quietly filling the gap, returning to us that which was stolen, in a smaller package than ever. Who'd have thought?

I'm reminded of the term "retrofuturism," a Terry Gilliam coinage which refers to the clever but utterly wrong futures posited by visionaries of the past. Most particularly, imagined views of the 1990's and 2000's, which, chronologically speaking, have been the most popular science fictional settings since the earliest days of the so-called Golden Age. Even the younger, naiver me that I was a decade ago, a third of my life ago, the me who bought the Zenith Z-183, is guilty of imagining futures that would never (perhaps could never) occur.

The problem is, when the future gets here it's never actually all that futuristic. Here it is 1996, and our homes and offices remain cluttered with scraps of paper, and with the hundreds of implements we use for marking and folding and fastening and posting and filing them. Chemistry has not made our living appreciably better, either, and the cars don't fly, and robots don't follow us around filling our ever need. The changes are much more subtle than that. In the car today, I try beaming back mental images to that older version of myself, "Look! Here's the future!" but it doesn't work. There's a simulacrum of that me still running inside my head like a daemon program, and he gets the signal just fine. He simply isn't buying it. Aside from the PDA, which does look an awful lot like a calculator, the only thing in the car that gives him any pause at all is my cellular phone, a Motorola flip model a la Captain Kirk, and even that is not so terribly shocking. Cellular phones existed back in his time, and while they were bigger and dumber and a lot less common, any fool could see where the trend was heading. So I try explaining to him about the Internet and the World Wide Web, but he's read all about them in cyberpunk novels, and my reality still hasn't caught up with those expectations, and anyway, he's done the BBS thing and the Compuserve thing and the Adventure and Wumpus and Zork at 300 baud thing, and he was even on The Source for a while, back around 1980. "Actually," he tells me, "it's kind of boring."

The lesson is a sharp one. Have I so little to show him? A 75 mph speed limit sign flashes by, and I beam him an image of that. "See? They repealed that national 55 thing." He smiles. This, at least, is a surprise. Well, okay, how about the collapse of communism? The fall of the Berlin Wall? Now, suddenly, he goes edgy and suspicious on me. This he can't easily bring himself to believe. He lives in the height of the Cold War, after all, and plays Nuclear Escalation and the post-apocalyptic rpg Road Killin's with his friends, and takes classes in nuclear physics and nuclear policy and dreams nightly of The Bomb with vivid, insider knowledge. You know the drill: a contrail and a brilliant flash. Get away from the windows! Then a wall of fiery dust approaching, and then bang. The glass blows in like a thousand hypersonic scalpels and he wakes up screaming.

"No really," I tell him. "It doesn't happen that way. The Cold War was a bluffing match, and we won. Now we're both just broke, is all, but Congress is working toward a balanced budget for the U.S.. I think maybe they'll get there, in another ten years or so. They're pretty serious this time."

"Bull," he says defiantly. His retrofuturistic vision has been strained too far. He believes in the possibility of unbombed tomorrows, and the certainty that there is a future of some sort up ahead. But not that one, no sir.

"You'll publish four novels before you're thirty," I tell him, to soothe his feelings, and then I say goodbye. For the science fiction writer in me, the conversation has been a disconcerting one indeed. I try to call up the future, to raise some 2006 or 2016 version of myself to tell me where my own vision goes wrong, where I've allowed my prejudices to blind me. But the call, for whatever reason, doesn't get through.

Probably, those future me's are reading my early fiction and sniggering at the notion that I, that they, ever thought things would be that way. Well hey, guys, nobody's perfect.


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