300 Years from Then

Feb 5, 2020–We gave up conventional and cable TV 25 years ago. But for Christmas I received access to one of the streaming services, so I’ve been revisiting series from the 1980s and 90s, the last time I watched anything. One that popped up was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the crew revived three earthlings who had been frozen 300 years earlier (or now).

I wish the writers had explored the cognitive dissonance of people who died in the age of “now” and re-awakened in the world of Star Trek. If it were me, I would have shown so much more wonder about the world of the future than they did trying to replicate their favorite brand of whiskey.

Alas, I can’t go forward. But I can go back. So I did a thought experiment and tried to imagine what 18th century me would think upon arriving in the 21st century (now).

What, for example, is a typical technology we take for granted yet would amaze someone who grew up in an age of buggies and buckle shoes?

There are unlimited choices, but let’s use electricity. The power of power is so common to us we seldom appreciate the world-changing effect it brought. To a time traveler, flipping a switch and instantly bathing a room in light would be nothing short of magical.

As for understanding it, it would be impossible to explain the dance of electrons generated by magnets and turbines then sent along conductive wires to your home, where it brings to life lights, motors, old Star Trek episodes, and Instapots.

More than the power itself, what gives me awe is that vast network of actual wires that delivers power from generating sites to every single home, building, and edifice in the country. If I admire the people who discovered electricity, I worship those who figured out how to deliver it. They not only had to overcome the physical obstacles, but the ridicule and skepticism of doubters.

Right, they must have been told. You are going to string wires carrying 110 volts from generators to every town in America, down every street, then hook them into every house, then run them behind the walls to every room, just so we can plug in contraptions that haven’t been invented yet. Sure, Edison.

Let’s go back even further–before fire.

Imagine a world where we all shivered, sat in the dark, and scavenged raw meat. At night we had nothing to stare at while we shared origin stories and lied about our mastodon hunting skills.

Then a precocious young caveman accidentally chipped a piece of flint that fell on some dry grass and kindled a flame. He excitedly brought his discovery back to the clan.

After studying the burning stick and seeing its wondrous powers, the elders said, “We not sure about this ‘fy-er,’ Og. Sure, it make mastodon tongue taste delicious, but what about danger? If it leave stick, it destroy hut. It hurt finger on chief’s daughter Ayla. And how long before we run out of trees and air to keep it burning?”

Thankfully for generations of campers, scented candle companies, and James Watt, fire caught on so to speak. If it was invented today, I’m not sure we would be allowed to use it.

I guess what I’m saying is it is amazing what people, just plain people, produced. Who was the person who stood on a hill in Nebraska and envisioned a road stretching from coast to coast? What about the bicycle-building brothers who watched a bird glide and figured out the secret of heavier-than-air flight?

No, we can’t travel 300 years into the future. But we already have.