Opinion: Indistinguishable from magic

Back to the future and the future of change

As an adolescent, I loved to read the science fiction magazine Analog. One of my favorite Analog stories was "Hindsight" by Harry Turtledove. (I still have my copy of this "special spoof issue," dated mid-December 1984, in my garage.)

In "Hindsight," a 1950s pulp sci-fi writer is startled to discover that an unknown author has published a story that remarkably resembles one he had in the planning stages. He and his editor investigate, eventually discovering a woman who reveals she's a sci-fi writer from the future who has returned to the 1950s--all the way from 1983!--to try to change the world through science fiction.

I love this story for so many reasons. I love the idea--one that even the most cynical sci-fi writers share, whether they'll admit it or not--that science fiction really does have the power to change the world. And I love how the woman from the future has repurposed historical events ("Houston, We Have a Problem," and "Tet Offensive") as pulp sci-fi stories. (We are all living in someone else's sci-fi world.)

But my favorite thing about the story is a scene in which the writer from the future ushers the two men into her back room, where she keeps her future technology. There's a 1980s-era word processor and a dot-matrix printer, charmingly outmoded from the vantage point of 2013 but stunning to the men in the story. And in the corner, a top-loading VCR attached to a small color TV set. She plays Star Wars for the writer, and he's flabbergasted--not just by the color picture, but by a recognizable-yet-aged Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

I wish I could link to "Hindsight" itself, so you could read it, but as far as I can tell it's unavailable except as part of the ebook "3xT." It's worth reading, but probably not for $10.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I thought of "Hindsight" after reading a tweet this morning:

1956, and a 5MB hard drive is being lifted onto an aircraft i.imgur.com/uqKOX.jpg

The picture is of a man in a forklift lifting a gigantic metal box. I immediately thought about the 32GB iPhone--with 6400 times the storage capacity--that I carry in my pocket 57 years later. With "Hindsight" banging around in my brain all these years later, I wondered what residents of the 1950s would think of that phone if I could show it to them.

"Back to the Future"

I can't be the only person who thinks about this stuff. (I mean, Marty McFly's Walkman!) So I mentioned it on Twitter and suddenly found myself in a discussion about what Apple device you'd want to take back in time from today to blow away those sci-fi writers in 1956. (If you're interested, I've saved the whole thing on Storify.)

The iPad is probably the right answer, assuming you had time to prepare. (Be sure to bring a charger!) The tablet would be shockingly small, but it has a nice, big screen--big enough for a bunch of dumbstruck 50s denizens to crowd around. It also has the capacity to hold a staggering amount of content. No, you couldn't surf the Web in 1956, but plenty of apps work just fine without a network connection, and of course you could pre-load it with music, movies, TV shows, and books from the future. That one iPad could change the entire timeline!

What if you didn't have time to prepare? What if you were to blink and be sent back in time by a Weeping Angel? Well, then you'd be left with the iPhone in your pocket. Still an impressive product, but I'd recommend immediately putting it in Airplane Mode and start figuring out how to charge the thing. And if you're using iTunes Match, you'd miss the chance to play the Beastie Boys to a young and impressionable Paul McCartney.

Speaking of angels, we're probably deep in head-of-a-pin territory here. But consider in turn what we might make of the technology of 2070.

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It'd be great if every technology company aspired to creating products that would seem magical even to contemporary consumers. (Is it any surprise that Apple uses that very word to describe its own products?)

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to trade this oscillation overthruster for a flux capacitor.

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