The Infinite Matrix | Howard Waldrop | Week 20
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02.10.05

The World of Yesterday... Tomorrow!

4. Television Planes Spy on Enemy Lines!

Everything the handymen in these magazines were striving for would have been possible had we entered the solid-state world in 1937, rather than 1947....

The transistor made radio (and later television) really mobile for the first time. You could take it anywhere. This ubiquity of music made possible Top 40 radio in the 1950s and '60s, fueling the record industry, which made possible the Beatles, which eventually made the world safe for MTV and Britney Spears....

Solid state TV made possible the remote, which made possible multi-channel cable TV, which has brought about Bruce Springsteen's "355 channels and nothing on."

Solid state made possible the cordless telephone and the push-button dial, then the mobile phone (in the canvas bag) then the cell phones so you'd have to listen to morons' inane conversations, no matter where you were 24 hours a goddam day. And you'd be standing on a street corner waiting for the walk-light; there's a burst of cursing; you have to look around to see whether it's someone with Tourette's Syndrome and a bi-polar disorder, or if someone is only talking on his cell phone with his broker....

Microwave and radar technology for the War led to a revolution in communications (and cooking...), which gave us the cell phone, the communications satellite, and GFS locators ("compasses and maps for morons.")

We went from tinfoil to wax to shellac to plastic; from wire to tape to videotape; from 78 to 45 to 33 1/3 to 8-track to audio cassette and CD; from CD to DVD, from the slide rule to T-1 calculators to the PC — all because of advances in plastics, recording head technology, and the laser. (We're still waiting for Tesla's death-ray.)

Shockley and his guys didn't even have a gleam in their eyes in 1937, though everybody in electronics knew the problems. (Like in the movie 1941, when the Japanese sailors are trying to get the console Atwater-Kent radio from Slim Pickens's truck through the submarine hatch — "We gotta find some way to make these things smaller!") All visions of the future — especially in the fields of computers and cybernetics — only foresaw bigger and ever-bigger ones — SF stories talked of computers the size of the Sears Building — which was what you'd have to have if they'd stuck with vacuum-tube technology, and it wasn't fast enough. (Like now — what's holding everybody back is the speed of light — "Busted by Einstein!")

We went to the Moon in 1969, on half-solid-state, half-vacuum-tube technology; it was still around because there were things vacuum tubes could do, steadily and dependably, just as well as the newer stuff, so they went with what they knew.

If you would have asked a handyman in 1939 to try to figure what "Movies in Your Home" would mean, he would have come up with much the same things Jules Verne had done in 1900 — some central facility you dialed up, requested a film at a certain time, and they played it, just for you. Or some central catalogue of repeating movies you could access at certain starting times. All over your interactive 2-way television. Even in 1939, the idea of an electronic "Information Storage and Retrieval System" the VCR and VHS cassette, the DVD and player — was too far away (although the Bing Crosby Labs would be working on videotape by 1950) from TV as it was then known. (Movies broadcast over TV had been done experimentally since the '20s; the thing playing when BBC-TV went off the air for the duration of WWII was a Mickey Mouse cartoon....)

If you could have stated what we have now reasonably enough, readers of Modern Mechanix and Popular Science could have followed the steps through from their time to ours; seeing what would have to happen in what order, leading to now. It would have been dispiriting and insurmountable to them, without the incremental, day-by-day, year-by-year steps that have happened in the last 65 years, slowly and seemingly haphazardly, until we get 355 channels with nothing on — the guy in 1939 would have foreseen maybe 3 channels — NBC, CBS, Mutual, always with something on.

It wasn't from lack of imagination — quite the reverse. It was seeing that it wouldn't just happen — blap! — overnight, that a couple of thousand things would have to fall into place, one by one by one — before we'd end up with the modern miracles of 2005 A.D. Push a button and find out where you are, anywhere in the world. Talk with anyone, anywhere, without an operator, with no telephone line within 50 miles, your call next door going 44,000 miles up and back in the twinkling of an eye. Find virtually any piece of music ever recorded, and be able to hear it within 24 hours. Have a piece of plastic in your pocket that takes the place of any money ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. Inflict the story of your humdrum life on the unsuspecting sitting in their homes with a click of the SEND button.... Watch any movie ever made of which there's a reproducible copy left. And on and on and on.... (Clarke's Dictum: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.)

Remember, in 1939, about 20% of the homes in American were without electricity (although the Rural Electrification Agency and the TVA were whacking away at those figures.)

So there it was, off there in the distance like gleaming purple mountains: the future we have.

And there they were, back there in their present, the late 1930s, war knocking at the door, with what seemed like wonders enough going on around them (autopilots, drive-in banks, tattooed chickens, television in airplanes, hydroplanes, home-made midget racers, radios in your floor lamp, a World's Fair that promised a more and more wonderful time to come...)

And these pipe-smoking dudes in their ties and shop aprons could see it up ahead — instead of unending progress there would be Progress of Another Kind as a 6-year war, involving almost everyone on the damn planet, would intervene — the future was misty, they couldn't quite make out the details, the specifics, but they could see the broad outlines, the Big Picture — it would be an electric world; we all had cars and good roads; the cities had parks of rest and culture, and we would all pull down as much as $2.00 an hour.

They could envision it; they could work toward those goals; they'd do their part.

Then they'd sigh, and go to the workshop, and make the Mrs. another planter to put on the Tele-Vision.

Thanks, Paul.

 


team waldrop

I C London, I C France, which may be the Web's most technologically primitive blog, is brought to you through the typing, proofreading, editorial, and coding efforts of Team Waldrop, also known as Mary Kay Kare (proudly reality-based) and L. Blunt Jackson (Seattle, Philadelphia, Tau Ceti), and via the steadfast couriers of the United States Postal Service. Much thanks to all involved!

about howard

Locus Magazine is offering a special deal on the issue with the superb Heart-of-Waldrop photo and interview. Che'ekidaou'ut.

Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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