The Null Device
John C. Dvorak takes a break from speculating about Apple and Microsoft to look at how strange our world would look to someone from the 1920s:
Let me begin with the one new commonplace practice that has less to do with technology than with legislation. And that's the crowd of people huddled in a group outside a building smoking cigarettes. This would have to be a weird sight for people from 1920. We don't think much about it, but it is indeed a weird sight.
Perhaps the weirdest societal change has to do with digital cameras and the practice of framing shots in the preview window by holding the camera out in front of yourself. Even ten years ago, nobody would have predicted that most people would now take pictures this way. Give people a pro digital SLR camera and they will still hold the thing in front of them at arm's length.(Are there digital SLRs that display a preview of the scene on the LCD screen in real time? My Canon EOS doesn't do that. I thought the whole point of an SLR is to require the photographer to look through the viewfinder, thus reinforcing their perception that they're a Real Photographer following a weighty and time-honoured tradition and standing on the shoulders of giants like Ansel Adams, rather than a mere amateur playing ignorantly around with a shiny, instantly-gratifying toy.)
Would anyone even 20 years ago have predicted that on every business card you will now find a standardized e-mail address? It's now deemed weird if you do not have an e-mail address on the card and have to write it on.All these things and others he mentions (mobile phones/BlackBerries, chatrooms, and so on) would seem utterly alien to someone from the 1920s (though I wonder whether any futurists or science-fiction writers from those times have predicted anything that comes close to the mark). When you think about it, some of them would seem quite odd to someone who had been asleep for a quarter of a century. One thinks of the 1980s, for example, as the recent past (after all, they had Madonna and Michael Jackson) rather than the Past proper, that foreign country (as L.P. Hartley put it) where they do things differently. Though someone who just woke up from having been in a coma since 1981 would find themselves in a different world: lacking a lot of little things they took for granted (like being able to smoke in offices, or on aeroplanes) and having a bunch of new, alien innovations (the internet and mobile phones, and the profound changes in social and cultural dynamics they have brought about, would be the big ones). To our 1981 exile, our mundane technology would seem slightly science-fictional: from our tiny, feature-packed DVD recorders and MP3 players (does anyone remember how huge early video recorders were?) to communications devices like something out of Star Trek, 2006 would look like scifi, only without the silver lamé jumpsuits and flying cars and other stylistic conventions that say "this is the (space-)future".
The iPods people listen to would seem familiar enough to our visitor, like a more advanced Walkman; what they'd make of the mainstream pop music of today, infused with influences from everything from hip-hop (a fringe scene in 1981, well below the radar) to dance-music genres driven by recent technology, is another matter. If the iPod in question was playing one of the various retro-styled acts popular today, from Gang Of Four/XTC-quoting new-wave-indie-art-rock bands to the last Madonna album, they may find it slightly familiar, though all the more unsettling in the subtle differences that betray it as of 2006, and made for a 2006 audience.
What if someone from 1991 arrived in 2006, with no awareness of the last 15 years? The shock would be somewhat lesser (though, in some ways, perhaps greater; the current age of homeland security and perpetual war against sinister shadows could be more of a rude awakening from the post-Berlin-Wall optimism of the 1990s than from the age of Mutual Assured Destruction). Email addresses on business cards would still seem a bit odd, though if our visitor was an academic or scientist, they would be familiar with them, and one could just about imagine the current state of the world leading to 2006, with its web-based commerce and pocket-sized, ubiquitous mobile phones. Though digital cameras could still seem strange.
In other words, the immediate past is a different neighbourhood; they do things slightly differently there. Go far enough and people start speaking a different language, though if you do so a day at a time, you won't notice the changes.
I wonder how strange 2016, or 2031, would seem to someone from now.
The latest bizarre Japanese product is Photogenic Masks, which "have been created for anyone who desires to become a girl quickly and easily" (presumably one of those Japanese market niches that doesn't translate so well abroad). The graphic says it all:
If the plasticky, platinum-haired faces straight out of Mori's Uncanny Valley didn't quite induce the appropriate sense of unease, the knife stabbing the flower helps nicely.