When I was a kid, I loved magic.
There is a picture on display in my mother’s living room. David Copperfield sits at a table signing autographs. My brother and I are next to him, while he signs our event posters. I’m slack-jawed, literally the picture of awe. I had a magic set, so I knew how simple illusions worked. But Copperfield’s work was so far beyond what I understood, he may as well have been Merlin. Or Jesus.
Only kids really believe in magic. When you’re an adult, you can see a Copperfield show and enjoy yourself, but the whole time you’re trying to figure out the trick, and that’s not really believing anymore. You’re all too aware that you’re watching an illusion, that it’s just a show. As a kid, I only knew the word “magician”; it was only years later that I heard “illusionist.”
Science fiction is like a variant of magic. It’s a genre based completely on premises that could, maybe, happen someday, but not yet. Enjoying science fiction requires you to temporarily ignore what you know about how the world works and try to imagine the story is feasible. Sci-fi fans even have a term for this: “suspension of disbelief.”
You watch characters on the Enterprise wander around huge environments in a Holodeck, then the program stops and they’re in a 20×20 foot room. You’re suddenly left wondering if they just walked like a mile during the program, why didn’t they walk into the walls? That’s poor writing, because it’s too easy to drop out of your suspension of disbelief. But when you watch The Matrix, and Trinity explains the true nature of déjà vu to Neo, what you think is that it makes perfect sense. So that’s what déjà vu is; of course, what else would it be?
I realized recently that a number of things now exist which, in my childhood, would have been pure science fiction. I’m not talking about extravagant things, like the Large Hadron Collider or space tourism. I’m talking about things I can simply walk into a store and purchase, as an average guy off the street.
Like so many people, I carry an iPhone. Really think about this device for a moment. In a form factor about the size of a deck of playing cards, it has more power and communication capability than several of the computers I’ve owned in my life, combined. It can do everything from simple text-based applications like email, to fast-paced first-person shooters, and you can put entire feature-length movies on it.
Watch old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the 80s, and you’ll see characters walking around using tablet-shaped computers, no keyboards, nothing but a slate and a finger. 25 years later, we have the iPad. They even have a similar name: on the Enterprise, they used PADDs.
More of a Disney fan than a Trekkie? That’s fine, just think of iPad as the magic mirror instead. A smooth plate of glass whose power you can call forth. Ask it something—anything—and it can tell you instantly.
I’m an avid reader, and have been for as long as I can remember. I have shelves and shelves of books. Too many to even keep in bookcases anymore. Ignoring storage needs, some books are just damn heavy, and big. Holding them for a while is a pain, and carrying them around with you is inconvenient. But now, I have a Kindle. Dozens of books in a package the size of a Superman comic.
Do you remember the erasable PaperMate pen? It sucked, didn’t it? Well, the Sharpie Liquid Pencil isn’t a whole lot better, but it’s still like magic because it doesn’t use ink; they figured out how to make liquid graphite.
I am old enough to remember having to get up and change channels on the TV by hand. I remember when you could still buy a black-and-white set. Channels were not all equal: some were VHF and some were UHF. The UHF channels always seemed a little bit ghetto, didn’t they? Somehow the mere fact that they were on that second (usually lower) dial made them inferior, regardless of what was actually on.
My wife complains all the time about the DVR doing things like deciding to record something at its 2AM run instead of the first run, forcing her to watch it a day later than expected (or not recording a show at all). And I think, does she even realize how much better this is than everything that came before? Would she really want to go back to using a VCR, or (gasp) watching things live? She’s grown up now, and forgotten how to believe in magic.
Frank Chimero wrote about an experience in the Apple Store. There was a horse in the store, and as he looked around, nobody seemed to see it except for him. He coined the term “tiny pony,” which refers to anything that is fairly exceptional on its face, but for whatever reason, nobody seems to notice.
Cell phones and the ability to make a phone call to anyone from anywhere is a tiny pony. The instant gratification provided by being able to have almost any question answered immediately is a tiny pony. Airplanes are tiny ponies. A black president, whose father is from Kenya and mother is from Kansas, being elected President of the United States is a tiny pony.
My wife looks at the TV and DVR and doesn’t see it for what it is: a tiny pony. Its fairly minor flaws seem major, but only when its larger context is ignored.
Do you remember life before the things we have today? I mean really remember. How things were before you had a DVR, a laptop with a home wifi router, an iPhone, a TV remote, XM radio, or a microwave oven? When you had to open your car windows with a hand crank, and unlock the door with a metal key? Can you imagine going back to the time when your everyday life was still science fiction?
I, for one, cannot.