Hang on, I think I can hear the future

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As a child, I remember the telephone in our house. It was a wooden box, screwed to the wall and big enough to hold a pair of shoes. The handset consisted of a corinthian column, a bakelite mouth flute at one end and a hearing piece at the other. To make a call, you lifted the handset from the hook, turned a small handle vigorously; there would be a clicking and whirring sound, before the operator would ask you for the number and connect you.

The phone in my pocket now is a rectangular quartz screen, half a centimetre thick. Any smaller in dimensions and my fat fingers would be too big for the keyboard display. Yet we all know the power of a smartphone.

In the 1960s, mainframe computers took up entire air-conditioned floors; today that computing power can fit inside a box of chocolates. Then in 1989 came the world wide web (www) and changed the way we communicate forever. Naturally, all these developments feast on each other and the whole process of escalation becomes faster, wider and self perpetuating.

But that was then, let’s look, not at now, but roll forward at least 15 years. We all want tomorrow’s newspaper today …

The electric car… and beyond

Things have come a long way from Sir Clive Sinclair’s C5 Electric Car of 1985; little more than a small battery powered tricycle. But the new kid on the block is a hydrogen powered car. The vehicle uses water, yes, water as fuel source; the electricity to separate out the hydrogen can come from, say, wind power. Wind costs nothing, it is cheap and clean, it is always there and nobody owns it. It goes beyond renewable. When hydrogen is used for power, the waste product produced is… water! 

But why have a driver? A driverless car has been tested under all sorts of conditions for over 11m miles and they will be on our streets within ten years. You could call up a ‘pool’ driverless car on your smartphone to take you to that country pub, drink responsibly, then be driven home. Imagine the urban landscape without owners’ cars parked in driveways, garages, petrol stations and car showrooms.

Why go to the shops?

Many years ago, I would phone through a weekly order to my local grocery shop. The goods would be placed inside my porch and once a month I would settle my account by cheque. Now you can surf the supermarket’s web page, view pictures, read descriptions and reviews of products, then ‘proceed to checkout’ by paying with plastic. Everything delivered to your doorstep. Naturally, this process has been hugely escalated by that Change Manager – Covid-19. Perhaps the next development would be to have ‘tube trains’ running through the sewers in sealed tunnels to bring the supplies right into your house. Failing that, the roads would be pretty clear for those driverless delivery trucks. No need to visit the High Street or shopping mall.

Why go to the office?

Of course, this is now possible due the massive advances in IT, and the service economy. Again, Covid has been the current driver. Not only will thousands of offices close or physically downsize, but the supporting infrastructure around them would shrink.

Blue skies thinking

A Zoom meeting with colleagues abroad is not the same as pressing their flesh, inhaling their scent and being able to have ‘a quiet word’ in the coffee break. Also, for those of us banged up in cities, it is now considered a right to holiday abroad. But what price the cost to the environment and spread of disease? One controversial solution would be to restrict demand by raising the price of air travel. But then only the rich would be able to fly.

Still a lot to learn

Another problematic area: yes, IT has changed the dynamics of the classroom and lecture hall, but education is critically about the teacher/pupil relationship. It is also about the interaction of the students themselves, discovering the world together and forging long-term relationships.

Will these changes benefit our society? Yes, we will have blue skies, cleaner oceans and wildlife will thrive. Disease will not be eradicated, but could be prevented and controlled. Businesses will seize the opportunity that change brings. But could we see a GP face-to-face, talk to a person in an organisation on the telephone, grind ‘the rumour mill’ in the office? 

As herd animals, we need to do these things. contribute to society and respect cultures. Above all education is key – the key to the future.

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