The Future Now.

I recently spent the weekend on Skye, climbing with a group of friends and former colleagues. Between us, we spend a fair bit of time travelling between London and Edinburgh, and we were discussing the train journey between the two cities, and points in-between: the east coast route, or the west.

It quickly degenerated into the modern equivalent of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch. One guy complained about the wifi on the train; another how there were 3G blackspots on the west coast route, so he couldn’t respond to emails on his Blackberry.

I had to stop them and point out quite how much they were taking for granted.

We were all of an age – part of the post-war baby boom. I used my first computer in 1982, doing some stats for my degree; I bought my first computer (a BBC Micro) to write my thesis in 1985.

When we were growing up, phones were attached by a wire to the wall (and, basically, that’s how it was until about 10 years ago – not that long); if you weren’t at work or at home and you wanted to make a phone call, had to queue in the rain to put coins into a slot in a phone box. If you could find one. And it was working.

Email didn’t really start to be used until 1990, about twenty years ago. When I first started working, if I wanted to send a business letter to someone, I would dictate it or draft it by hand, pass it onto a typist, correct their draft, probably correct it again, and then sign it, put it in an envelope and stick it in the mail. (By this point, typists were using word-processors – stand-alone computers; before that, they’d have had to type it out each time I corrected it.  Computers weren’t commonly networked for another five years or so – to move a file from one computer to another, you’d copy it to a real floppy disk and physically move it. I still have box-loads of unreadable 5½-inch floppy disks. Yes, there were lots of jokes about 5½-inch floppies…)

Music came on vinyl (it smelt better, and still does, thank god) or cassette tapes; you had to go to a shop to buy it, and anything else. To play that music before about 1982, you had to be indoors – no iPods, MP3s or even Walkmen (for me, mobile music started in 1985, when I bought a Walkman to keep me company on the same east coast route between Edinburgh and London).

You could only find out the price of things, the times of trains, even phone numbers – just about anything – by going to a shop or going to a library and looking it up in a book. You had to remember (or write down) phone numbers you used a lot – and you literally dialled them, rotating a numbered dial to produce the number (you had to stick your finger in a hole in the dial to move it).

An Old Phone Box

An Old Phone Box (image by Graham Woolrich on flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence)

The internet didn’t exist for most users until 1991 or so – that’s only twenty years.

When I was regularly heading up and down the east coast line in the mid-1980s, the thought that I could carry all my LPs in my pocket, reading communications written by people anywhere in the world on my handheld computer, watching videos they’ve recorded and shared, making phone calls as I speed along – well, if you’d told me that, I’d have said it was science fiction – the future.

The future really is now.

It is frankly boggling – something to be amazed about. We really shouldn’t take it for granted!

(All this reminds me of this rather excellent video, “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy”. Actually, he says just what I mean – only he’s funny, too!)

(The title of this post comes from a

2 thoughts on “The Future Now.

  1. Dan Sutton

    This is good example of how much technology has changed in the last few decades and how quickly we have gone from wonderment to casual annoyance at imperfect service.

    Reading the technology trade press one can see lots and lots of little innovations being made and lots and lots of opportunities to apply these innovations to improving people’s lives (or at least selling them something). The future does seem to be rushing towards us in a way that feels almost Victorian.

    When I think about it I think I live in an age of wonders.


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