Sunday 22 September 2013

Proof that change is actually slowing down

Last weekend, I found an old VHS of Steven Spielberg's film Back to the Future being sold off in the local library, along with the books, furniture, staff etc etc (thanks for nothing, Croydon Borough Council).

I watched it through with my children, for whom it needed a lot of explaining.

But what I noticed was how strange it was looking back to 1985, when it was made, which is almost 30 years ago.  This is ironic because it is all about going back in time 30 years from then, to 1955.

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will know that I am pretty sceptical about the idea, pedalled by American business and IT gurus, that change is accelerating.

Last time I wrote about this, my friend and inspiring blogger Mark Pack pointed me in the direction of a presentation he did which took apart those repeated claims that the take up of new technology is getting faster and faster.  In fact, as he says, the take-up of radio in the 1930s was far faster than mobile phones today.

Well, for me Back to the Future revisited was conformation of this.  The changes between 1955 and 1985 portrayed by the film were vast compared to those between 1985 and 2013 - from the bizarre cars and music through to the drugstores and dresses.  And attitudes.

I have been wondering whether this is a delusion on my part because I can remember 1985 so well (Reagan, miner's strike, Iran-Contra, second Brixton Riot, remember?).  I became editor of Town & Country Planning that year.  It is certainly true that I had not used a computer, still less a mobile phone by then.  IT has changed the way I work, but not vastly (though I certainly wouldn't be blogging).

Yet think of the other technological change over the last 30 years.  Boeing 747s, still flying now.  Volkswagen Golfs.  Minis, for goodness sake.  The clothes of 1985 would hardly look out of place now (heavens, I'm still wearing some of them).

My home might then have had carpets rather than a wooden floor.  The offices we worked at in 1985 now lie empty and rotting.  The value of our homes is corroding our lives - yes, there has been change.  It occurred to me as I watched that one reason why pretend that change is accelerating is that we can't bear to look too closely at the reason it is slowing down: our political culture has lost the ability to imagine, and our administrative machinery is seizing up.

That is why, if I was to find myself in the movie Back to the Future and transported back three decades, I don't believe I would be disorientated in 1985.  I might not even realise I had gone back in time - until, perhaps, I tried to remember how to use a phone box.


BruceK said...

I am roughly the same vintage as yourself and I would completely agree.

Regarding computers and mobiles, you may not have used a computer back then but the PC was already common and 1985 saw Microsoft introduce the admittedly little-used first version of Windows:

Mobile phones are older; again according to Wikipedia:

'Mobile telephones for automobiles became available from some telephone companies in the 1940s'

True hand-held devices date from the early seventies, as do a number of core Internet protocols e.g. the first version of TCP.

So I am not sure that even these would really have been a novelty in the mid-80's.

Nicola said...

I agree that change is slowing down. Most of the household items and cars etc. have not changed that much.
But technology has changed completely including TVs or at least what they can do has changed.

Has someone who was born 3 years after Back To the Future is set, I don't think I would be too disorientated, although I might constantly remark that I wish I could google something or facebook someone but thats it.
Certainly, if you look at Back to the Future part II and how they go to 2015 and it looks completely different. Flying cars, most things are hands free. Holograms etc. still looks very much futuristic.

neil craig said...

I do not think basic progress is slowing down. The doubling time of Moore's law is falling, strength of new materials is increasing fast and of course the internet changes everything - AOLTimeWarner is primarily AOL.

This ultimately links to an article by Bill Willingham who starts with the same position as you but points out that in computer capacity we are now where the 30thC was expected to be (look at the enormous and very limited computers in original Star Trek).

His conclusion is that it is the health and safety culture that is stopping, for example, Marty's flying car whereas I come to the related one that it is government parasitism generally. After all, who created the current recession?

Simon Titley said...

One thing that has ground to a halt is pop music. It stopped evolving in about 1992 and there is nothing in today's charts that would have sounded out of place 20 years ago.

It is as if, in the 1960s, people were still listening to Bing Crosby instead of David Crosby.

David Boyle said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, which have all made me think. BruceK, you are quite right. Now I come to think of it, I had used a computer by 1985 - more than once - but I don't think one was installed in my office (forcing me to get to grips with a programme called WordStar) until the end of 1985.

Nicola said...

David, the first Macintosh was released in 1984 and it worked on a floppy disk, it was the first desktop with a graphical user interface and the internet was not invented until 1989.
Technology has changed and increased but I think the way it has changed our culture is actually hard to see.
I suppose the modern equivalent is Life on Mars, a cop in the 00s going back to the 70s.

David Boyle said...

Nicola, I'm not saying there's been no change. Of course there has. The real question is whether the IT developments have had more than a subtle change in the way we live - certainly compared to the enormous changes in the previous 30 years.

What you said earlier about Back to the Future II was fascinating- I don't think I ever saw it!