Back to "The Future!"

Revisiting an earlier post about The Future and getting a little direction.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the concept of The Future and what has changed about it since the days when we dreamed of flying cars and food pills. I probably spend too much time thinking about it... so I wanted to know what everyone else thought. Turns out, I'm not the only one who's given this some thought (go figure) and a lot of you had good (and not-so-good) things to say about The Future.

It seemed like it might be cool to keep this conversation rolling, so I've asked our directors here at SparkFun HQ to chime in on the subject for your entertainment. Here's what they had to say:

Our Chief Operating Officer, Trevor, chimes in on the blog from time to time. But he spends most of his time making sure that SparkFun stays, well, operational. He agreed in large part with the tone of my post and went on to give a little historical perspective:

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I think that in what you’ve written you’ve very accurately explained the situation, with an older generation who thought extensively about the Future as a wonderful place where technology fixed every problem, and read early Asimov and Clarke and maybe some Heinlein here and there being supplanted in more current times by those who think of the future (with a lower-case f) as having sky the color of television tuned to a dead channel.

In the post WW2 boom, and going AT LEAST until Kennedy was assassinated, every year brought “bigger and better” (yes, those scare quotes are deliberate) cars, appliances, houses, hi-fis, etc. It was a time of heady optimism, at least for the middle and upper classes in the US.

After the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Vietnam War, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, 9/11, and all the way to the current NSA revelations, it’s difficult to remember that technology actually DOES improve our lives to an extent every year. We view the past through rose colored glasses, forgetting or glossing over the many bad parts and taking for granted how the march forward of technology has really helped us today.

So, we have the wide perception that the past was better and the future is dirty, juxtaposed on the reality that although bad things are happening all the time, overall the future looks really bright, and the past was not as good.
Lindsay, our Director of Education was a research scientist in her pre-SparkFun life. Now she spends her time trying to get microcontrollers into the hands of young children. You may remember her post about her Arrested Development NeverNude shorts. She takes a very pragmatic stance on The Future:
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Admittedly, this is not my territory as aside from the science fiction running through various Vonnegut novels and a few of the dystopian classics, I'm not much of a sci-fi buff. In fact, I'm not sure if I've ever really thought of the the future with a capital 'F' other than a basket to which we can toss ideas of a better or worse life depending on the mood.

I spent most of my adulthood as a research scientist leading up to my days at SparkFun. The problems of the present are big enough that I wasn't too focused on the Future other than subconsciously using it as a light at the end of the tunnel. I'm sure somewhere in the back of my head I wondered what the research laboratory of the Future would look like knowing how different it was from the great scientists who paved the way for me to run powerful assays in just a matter of hours. I knew that there would be scientists that would revolutionize all areas of the sciences through new tools, but I genuinely didn't see myself in that camp. I was a humbled scientist.

However, since transitioning away from the laboratory and settling into life at SparkFun I am ever impressed by the citizen science that is brewing. By improving the accessibility and affordability of the tools (often through openness) we see amazing breakthroughs coming from all ages, races, genders, and from regions of the world that haven't had the opportunities to create and hack with these technologies. I don't think the Future will spare us from the perils of war, disease, and various hardships. The advances in technology will likely lead to powerful tools finding their way into dangerous hands, but I am hopeful that the advances in citizen science and participation will lead to rapid advances in areas that will greatly improve our lives and bring about better balance in the areas that have been perilously skewed over the last few decades.

In much the same way, Nate (El Queso Grande) is wary of a vision of the future which he sees as fantastic, but impressed by the massive leaps that we've already made:

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'The Future' was something before my time. I know of it as that era of retro sci-fi, and I know it had an impact on my parents/grandparents but by the time I was a kid I think technology was changing so quickly, and coming at them so fast, that people forgot to think about what was coming.

I often discount 'the future' as vaporware. I've learned to not buy in to the idea that cutting edge medical cures are just around the corner, or that energy will be too cheap to meter, or that we'll control the weather.

But I am pretty damned impressed by how quickly LED light bulbs can fundamentally change many times (models, styles, colors, brightness) over a few months at the store, all the while dropping in price. Maybe it's just a morning for the jaded businessman.

That said - there is something to the force that drives us. I wouldn't call it The Future but I do think there is a very nice, quiet, grass roots change going on with microcontrollers and embedded systems. That's what they were called 5 years ago. Now it's called Arduino and blinkys. What drives me is that what was unapproachable and set me apart from my friends is now becoming cool/fun/easy enough that my friends are doing it too. I'm all for that.

Of course, the farthest into the future that Nate can see right now is probably the construction of our new HQ. Somehow, he still finds time to do things like investigate our in-stock rates and testify in front of the US Judiciary.

Our Director of IT, Chris, makes a really compelling point about how innovation may have moved into scales that are harder to visualize. Is it possible that we're still working on The Future but it's either too small or too huge for popular culture to portray effectively? Here's what he has to say about it:

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The Future to me - at least the fantastic imaginative side of it - seems constrained to two realms decidedly outside of standard human perception: the very big and the very small.

The very big Future is stuff on a global scale and beyond our planet. Huge energy capturing devices like offshore wind turbines and the space ships of tomorrow that are in testing today. While some of these technologies are fathomable in comparison to my physical self (unlike, say, a massive solar sail…), these are technologies that will be deployed where I can’t see them. Like in the middle of the ocean or out in space, not in my neighborhood (like the flying car) or holstered to my hip (like a laser blaster).

The very small Future is the feeling I get when I watch a program like the NOVA Making Stuff Series. Metamaterials that do amazing things. At human scale they look innocuous (perhaps with the exception of broad-spectrum invisibility material, which would look like whatever’s behind it). These are the things that, when scaled up to human size, give us devices that behave like magic but we just expect them to work and go on with our lives. I’ve definitely fallen into that trap - it’s a part of the human condition - but whenever I read about or see images of what’s going on at the nano-scale level the amazement and wonder returns, because it is and will remain utterly outside of my experience.

This is where The Future of the past, like what you see inside the big ball at Epcot, falls flat. It was the The Future at human scale. But that’s not where the truly astounding advances will happen. Especially if we ever plan on being a Type I Civilization or better - the scale imposed by our physiology is as limited as the chunk of the spectrum imposed by our organic eyeballs. We’ve explored it so thoroughly that what wonders remain uncovered are few and far between, though not absent. Our exploration of other scales is really only starting to heat up and that’s where the best and most awe-inspiring advances of The Future lurk, waiting to be found and engaged.

Chris doesn't get a lot of time to hit the news page here but when he does, he hits it hard. Check out this great post about taking inventory at SparkFun!

Then there were some people who were less optimistic, like our very own Pete Dokter of According to Pete fame:

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You don't want to know what I think of the future.

fair enough.

As I watched the comments pour in for my original post, there were a few that caught my eye. Here's what some of you had to say about your experience with The Future. Avid commenter HelicopterGuy theorizes that The Future may just be too far away for us to care about anymore and is looking to todays prominent minds to reinvigorate our spirit of innovation:

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It seems to me as if we as a society have become so wrapped up in instant gratification that we have stopped looking to the future the way we used to. And the collective enthusiasm we as a society once shared has been replaced by divisiveness. And even our entertainment - remember the thoughts and dreams that Star Trek inspired? - has been replaced with reality TV, which inspires absolutely no one to try to achieve anything great. I think one shining beacon of hope is Elon Musk. He imagined electric cars for everyone, refueled by free, solar-powered charging stations, as well as space flight the way we all pictured it - and has set about to making them a reality. I agree with you, it certainly is time for a paradigm shift. And i think that visionaries like Musk can help to re-inspire us to once again dream of and reach for The Future.

Another SparkFun regular, scharkalvin, gauges Sci-Fi's track record for predicting the actual future and hypothesizes that we've tamed The Future on account of more immediate concerns:

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Science fiction has tended to be too optimistic in some places, and not optimistic enough in others. But sometimes they got it right. In the very first foundation novel published back in the 50’s Asimov predicted the pocket calculator. He was probably the only author that ever got THAT one right. Some future predictions were right on technically, but not practical or too dangerous in reality. Personal helicoptors were long seen as the future, but the vision failed due to the expense of the machines and how difficult they are to fly! Not every fixed wing pilot makes the transistion to rotor wing, because it takes talent (and lots of expensive hours in type)!

Back in the 50’s and 60’s the fear was we’d destory ourselves in a big atomic blast. Now we worry that we’ll simply slowly make the planet unable to support our species life kind and number. We’ve also come to realize just how lucky we’ve been not to have been wiped out by a rouge rock from space, or a super volcano eruption. So maybe we’ve tamed our vision of the future somewhat because we are now afraid that there might not be one.
Finally, insertBillHere learned how to pick out the practical from the fantastic while sorting through the culture of futurism. That ability has left him with a positive point of view about participating in The Future:

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Growing up, I remember many of these “futurisms.” But I was looking at ten- and twenty-year-old magazines. I was living in that future, and those things didn’t exist. So early on I became jaded.

As I grew up, I discovered I was wrong. Some of these magical things did, in fact, exist. Very few of them were in those magazines, however. More of them followed from period literature (pocket calculators and geosynchronous satellites) than from gaudier magazines. So I began to read with an active filter, looking at what could actually be done, and how new products from engineering journals could enable the dream products of yesteryear. I tried building things that worked, rather than simply dreaming about them, and found out how hard that really is.

These days I’ve joined a local hacker-space. I have a background in electronic hardware and cloud computing, and I look at projects the group wants to engage with an eye to, “how can we make this happen with available technology?” I used to dream about the future and how technology could make the future happen; now I live in the future and make it happen every day.

Close enough.

Close enough, indeed.

Comments 13 comments

  • As a follow-up, I'd just like to say that you should all abandon all hope blah, blah, blah. OK, I might feel slightly better about the future than that.

  • scharkalvin / about 9 years ago / 5

    First, OK I'm honored to have you thought my ramblings were worth being included here. I was influenced by many different kinds of SciFi stories duing my youth, and yes, one of them is reflected in my choice of avatar! (I was about 11 years old when that show first aired in NYC on WNEW-TV BTW).

    I hold a private pilot's license, though I havn't flown for over two decades, the cost of raising a family and the rising price of avgas being two reasons. Despite the immediate post-war vision that 'Jetsons' like flying cars would become the norm ending up being science fiction, there have been some advances in personal aviation. Ultra light aircraft and new relaxed FAA regulations for recreational aviation have made flying accessible to more people, but it's still a game for the well off.

    I didn't grow up with computers as my own daughters have, though I was in my freshman year of undergraduate study when the first 8 bit microprocessors became available. My first job was with Digital Equipment and thoughout my career I've watched the evolution of personal computers. Again, my children always knew about VCR's, CD's DVD's and the internet. I watched these things evolve. I remember the very first article describing RCA and MCA (or was that Philips) video disk development, and how it took almost a decade to go from concept to product. I often wonder how I was able to exist as a kid without the stuff my childeren took for granted; iPods, cellphones, wikiapedia, google, etc.

    Technology has it's 'dark side' (like the 'force'), something Orwell warned us of many years ago. Efforts to contain technology for 'our own safety' sound like Franklin's warning "Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither. " As a kid I could go down to the hobby shop and purchase all sorts of chemicals for my chemistry set experiments. Today, you would probably need a license to buy saltpeter (potassium nitrate). Sulpher might also be a hard item to find. I'll let you guess why. Hell, you need a perscription now to buy what once was an over the counter cold remedy.

    Today's makers need access to raw materials and tools to innovate. Putting road blocks in their way because of fear that terrorists might make use of these items only gives a victory to the dark side, because the black hats will find ways to get what they need and the good guys won't. This is going in the wrong direction!

    OK, time to get off the soapbox. :-)

  • Like scharkalvin, I too am honored and flattered that my brain droppings were not only read, but reposted. Thanks, Nick!

    And, with the exception of holding a private pilot's license, my thoughts (and in my case, rants) would also mimic scharkalvin's. I didn't grow up with computers, but I did grow up being able to purchase potassium nitrate for my chemistry set. I think that the hyper-reactionary fear of everything that an evil overlord or terrorist might do with product X or substance Y is stifling to growth, ingenuity, and progress. And I watched Astro Boy on WNEW-TV out of NYC. (Channel 5 on your TV dial. That's right, dial!)

    Also, I love the fact that the avatars of the three commenters from outside of Sparkfun are Wile E. Coyote, Astro Boy, and Albert Einstein.

  • RFsynthesizer / about 9 years ago * / 1

    Future looks bleak folks. The world governments are using technology to take away our freedoms.. TSA screening, fingerprint scanning, phone call and internet monitoring, cameras watching you at every corner. We are living in George Orwell's 1984.

    • JFS / about 9 years ago / 1

      The future is bleak only if you let it be. We should all remember that technology is a double edged sword, it can also be used (and has been) to expose the issues you are so worried about.

      • oesterle / about 9 years ago * / 1

        Care about something?

        Create a solution.

        • put it on your calendar

        • recruit girlfriend/buddy/boyfriend to help

        Involve them in the whole process

        • Brainstorm. Assume that all ideas are good

        • Sketch — pen and paper rules


        • What you can do over a weekend? And what will you save for a future revision?

        • Vote on what you can reasonably accomplish

        ** Implement **

        • Put the implementation weekend on your calendars

        • Shop

        • Make!

        • Show it off!

        Everyone has a KickStarter- or Indieogo-worthy idea.

    • While I agree that new technology may be opening up security concerns, there are also huge benefits to the greater populace. I mean, consider: I am replying to you from a country away, in several milliseconds, on a site that likely several thousand people visit each day. While privacy must be taken into account, security is not an issue with technology as a whole, it is always an issue with implementation. We cannot let technology be hindered because (say) some governing body 'could' control your new autonomous car.

  • TheRegnirps / about 9 years ago / 1

    Also speaking of the future, what has happened with opening up your home grown CMS, e-commerce and back end stuff? :-) I'd love to see that happen.

    (PS, I think you can't call Vonnegut science fiction. Psycho-magic-drama fiction maybe. More like "Metamorphosis" than "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel". Or maybe a poor man's "Gravity's Rainbow". Douglas Adams must have been influenced by "Breakfast of Champions". )

    • Also speaking of the future, what has happened with opening up your home grown CMS, e-commerce and back end stuff? :-) I’d love to see that happen.

      See my response to more or less this question from a couple weeks ago. I'm about to disappear to small-town Kansas to camp out on a county fairgrounds and listen to bluegrass jams for a week, so end-of-September might be pushing it a little on what I personally wanted to get done there, but not too much.

      PS, I think you can’t call Vonnegut science fiction.

      Sez who?

      Anyway, we could just go with Speculative Fiction and skip the genre nerdfight. I don't think he's really so much further outside the SFnal paradigm than a lot of Ray Bradbury or Roger Zelazny or Alfred Bester, and I don't run into a whole lot of fans who won't claim them.

      • TheRegnirps / about 9 years ago / 1

        Missed that response. Yes, I can imagine a massive effort required. I may have to tackle the CMS again and a long list of to-do's.

        And yes, Bradbury and Vonnegut are in the same basket (Bradbury is very versatile though. Did the screenplay for Moby Dick in his yoot IIRC. John Huston: "Ray, come and help me kill the white whale."). Zelazny (sigh) walked both sides of the SF and fantasy plus speculative with brilliance. Even his half page short shorts. Why did Larry Niven dry up? Does Halo pay him a royalty?

  • Speaking of the future, how's the new building coming along?

  • Rambo / about 9 years ago / 1

    In the 1940's 44 percent of American households had at least one active bridge player. Today, 2-3 percent. Somewhere along the line the future derailed...

  • NorthStreetLabs / about 9 years ago / 1

    Great article! I agree with everyone in some form or another, we are the makers, so we must make the future.

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