Archive - Jan 27, 2013
I am writing this on a laptop computer. Here, in the twenty first century, this seems pretty normal, but I thought, how would I have described a laptop computer to my grandfather, who never lived to see one. It would sound like science fiction.
It is like a small metallic briefcase, except when I open it up, it is not empty except for the papers, books, and maybe a slide rule inside. The top part of the inside of the brief case is like a large piece of glass, lit up from behind. On this glass are words and images. With the right commands, I can make pictures I've taken appear on the piece of glass. I can make movies play. There is a small black dot above the glass. It is a camera lens, and I can take a picture as well, which can then be displayed on the glass.
On the lower half of the metallic briefcase, there are two very small gratings. Behind these are speaks,so I can hear the sound of the movies. I can also listen to music or other recordings with the sound coming out of these speakers. On the left side is a small hole where I can insert a small metal plug, with wires than lead up to headphones. These are not like the headphones that bomber pilots used in World War II. They are very small fitting into each ear, instead of encompassing the ear. That way, I can listen to the sounds without disturbing people near me.
Between the two speakers in the lower half of the metal brief case are the keys of a typewriter. Yet unlike the typical arrangement in cascading rows, the keys are all flat, next to one another. The normal letters and numbers are on the keys, but there are special keys with just symbols on them or with abbreviations like 'esc', 'fn', and 'alt'. These keys, together with the normal letters and numbers can be used for writing, the way I am doing now, or for entering the commands that control what is displayed on the piece of glass, or sounds out of the speakers.
Below the keys is a small piece of metal. By moving my fingers around the piece of metal, I can also control the computer. There is a symbol that displays on the glass. As I move my fingers on the piece of metal, the symbol moves around the glass until it is positioned over the section of glass I desire.
Then, there are other things, hidden in this metallic briefcase. There is a battery so it works even when it isn't plugged in. There is a radio. This radio is different from the one you listen to music or the ballgame on. It is used for the briefcase to communicate with others computers around the world. Not only does it receive information, it sends it out as well. Other computers listen for this information, and then send back appropriate information as a response. In face, the pictures, movies or sounds are often information send back over this radio.
It would be more than my grandfather could take in, and the discussion might change to other topics. He might notice a strange small green light flashing from the dog's collar. Inside of the small black box on the dog's collar would be another radio. This one would only receive very simple information. With a different device, I could send messages to the dog's collar making the collar make beeping sounds to call or warn the dog, and if the dog didn't respond, I could send a message that would cause the dog to experience a small amount of pain, an electrical shock. Yes, a device to remotely control the dog.
It is all like science fiction. He might wonder where people ever got such ideas. That, I would say, is a great question. I might point out to him that even his life would seem like science fiction to those a generation or two earlier. Messages sent through the air, like smoke signals that people couldn't see. The ability to capture the reflection on a lake or mirror, and make it permanent in a photograph. Carriages that could be moved around without a horse pulling them.
Last night, my dreams were filled with three dimensional printers. Printing has come a long way from the strike of a key on a ribbon full of ink to make the typed word. It has come along way from the strange smelling mimeographs that my kids have no memory of. It has come a long way from the typesetters craft.
Now, a nozzle sprays rapidly drying ink on a piece of paper, or puts some black dust on the paper that gets stuck to it by a charge from a laser. We take laser printers for granted in our offices and sometimes in our homes. What if, instead of printing on paper, we could print one piece of plastic on top of another to make a three dimensional object? What if we could this with clays, metals, or even wood product? How about with food or living cells? It isn't really all that far away.
And so, if we can pull ourselves away from the gladiators, the bread and circuses, and the entertainments of today, what can we imagine?
Yes, we all live in science fiction novels. Are we up to the task of hero or heroine in these novels? How are we adapting our lives to the constant sources of information and entertainment, to being able to easily get in touch with many people from around the world in an instant? How is all of this changing us? Perhaps most importantly, how is this helping us bring about the next science fiction novels?