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The Future is an Empty Room

As digital technology consolidates its conquest of the known universe, emptying our living spaces and assimilating our lives, all that will be left in our future is space. Lots and lots of empty space.

Our Bleak Future is Written in the Stars

“Glory be to God for dappled things … All things counter, original, spare, strange…”

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sorry, Star Trek fans: There’s not going to be any manned interstellar travel in the near or far future. And there won’t be any teleportation or alien encounters, either. What there will be, as digital technology consolidates its conquest of the known universe, is space. Lots and lots of empty space.

It turns out that Star Trek was right about the future all along, at least in one small regard: It’s an empty room.

True, the TV series and movie franchise have gotten, or eventually are going to get, nearly all the big things wrong. Indeed, at some point in the far-distant future, if people still remember this moldy slice of sci-fi cheese from the ancient past, they’re likely to note ruefully how few of its grand visions ever were realized.

For example, faster-than-light-speed interstellar travel and the teleportation of humans probably will never happen. Because of the incredible distances involved, we most likely won’t ever visit other planets outside of our solar system in manned spacecraft. Nor will manned (or “aliened”) spacecraft likely ever visit ours.

But while it got the physics and engineering all wrong, Star Trek at least got the interior decoration part exactly right. Whenever the crew of the Enterprise retires for the night, their quarters are as cold and sterile as a surgical theatre or semiconductor manufacturing facility. With the exception of the fabulous views of Rigil Kentaurus visible through the “transparent aluminum” windows, and a few artifacts spirited away from that memorable shore leave on Argellius II, the bedrooms, “captain’s ready room”, and galaxy-class galleys hold hardly any visual interest at all.

And the rare terrestrial residences we see are just as bland, so we know the emptiness is not just a function of the lack of space in space.

It should be noted that, for practical reasons, furnishing a room from the future would be an expensive nightmare for prop masters, who would not only have to imagine what a 24th century bookshelf might look like, but would actually have to create it and stock it with plausibly futuristic tomes.

But it’s also possible that the art directors and prop masters of the recent past (the first season of Star Trek appeared in 1966) intuited that bookshelves would no longer exist in the distant future, either because they assumed the future would be more “streamlined”, or because they already knew that most of the physical manifestations of contemporary culture, including books, would soon be converted to digital form.

To state the obvious, books, DVDs, CDs, box sets, magazines, newspapers, letters, family photos, children’s artwork, board games, wedding albums, scrapbooks, prints, paintings, maps, brochures, journals, recipe binders, newsletters, logs, diaries, catalogues, televisions, radios, and devices for playing recorded music, along with many other items that have long furnished our homes, are already in the process of being digitally obliterated, so the likelihood of them existing in the near or far future is nil.

This destruction is accelerating at a pace that’s faster than even our science fiction scenarists could have imagined. We’re not even close to the 24th century, but already DVD sales are slithering down the same digital hole that swallowed the CD, the daily paper is close to being pulped, and the printed book is beginning to feel a cold chill running down its spine.

All of these media are being replaced by a single cool, impassive, and implacable delivery system: the screen. According to a recent study conducted on behalf of the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence, we now spend between 8-1/2 to 9-1/2 hours a day gazing at a screen, whether of the television, computer, e-reader, or smart phone variety, and no one is predicting that this rather stunning number is likely to decrease any time soon.

But there was nothing startlingly prescient about Star Trek. After all, the very instant -- a couple of decades before the series was conceived -- that the first piece of information was digitized into a bit stream, the inevitable victory of digital over analogue was already written in the stars. Because virtually every form of visual or aural information can be converted to a digital format, that initial “1” and “0” carried in it the seeds of a barren future, not unlike the manner in which those first fissile atoms under the squash courts at the University of Chicago portended the destruction of entire cities and atolls.

We take for granted that we live in an environment that is rich and varied and endlessly stimulating. But that richness is beginning to fade to white. And it isn’t happening only inside the walls of our homes: What, for example, will be the purpose of a library when, not too many years from now, every book ever written will be instantly accessible on one of the screens that we will hold before our eyes at every turn?

A recent Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro depicts the façade of the New York Public Library with a new sign, “Museum of the Internet – Formerly the New York Public Library”, and one imagines the empty, echoing halls containing only a bank of featureless screens, which in any event, could just as easily be located in patron’s homes, or in their side pockets.

.

A streetscape without bookstores (which are already beginning to fray around the edges); record stores; music stores; newsstands; newspaper boxes; stacks of free newspapers and city guides; magazine stores; comic book stores; greeting card and stationery shops; video rental stores; videogame stores; Internet cafes; photo shops; libraries; and some art galleries, art fairs, and museums may not be a bleak one. Undoubtedly, other kinds of stores will rise up to fill the void (yet another bank branch, for example, and, uh, maybe a new wave of frozen yogurt shops).

But it will be a radically different one, and the rapidity with which the cultural wealth of our recent past is being steamrolled by a shinier and more-efficient set of technologies must give even the most committed of technophorics pause.

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