Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Driven to the future

While driving to the Albany area this past weekend, I realized the future creeps up on us a minute at a time.

I hadn't done a similar drive since around 1989, when I navigated my 1973 Karmann Ghia up the thruway to visit a friend at RPI in Troy, NY. That vehicle was essentially a compact box of pressed metal, folded around a clattering air-cooled engine designed in the 1930s. The dashboard instruments consisted of a speedometer, fuel gauge, and a broken clock. The combo tape-deck/radio I had installed seemed terribly modern in the middle of the terribly retro fake alligator skin dash covering I had also inflicted on the car. The passenger seat held a massive road atlas, which I would study at frigid rest stops in a futile attempt to decipher the tangle of intersecting highways in the state capital area. If I failed, I would have to find a working pay phone at a rest stop and hope I had enough change left over from the tolls to call my friend, or at least hope he was home to accept a collect call.

18 years down the line I flipped the ignition on my rented Ford Edge, waited a moment while both the navigation system and the radio acquired two separate satellite networks. I plugged in my iPod, itself about the size of the cassette tapes of yore, yet holding about 20 days worth of music vs. 90 minutes. Cruising up the Thruway in comparative silence, I idly flipped through the onboard trip computer display that calculated my momentary gas mileage and 'distance to empty.' The GPS dutifully announced upcoming turns, merges and road names, and provided me with a countdown to an estimated arrival time. Nestled in the cupholder, my Blackberry plucked incoming emails from roadside cellular towers. Toll plazas silently charged my EZ-Pass as I cruised through them and their empty booths, a relic of when they harbored a human dipped into the stream of traffic to shave quarters and nickels from passing travelers.

The act- driving solo a few hundred miles up the Thruway- was identical, but just about every aspect of the trip has been transformed in ways that are now startlingly mundane. The temptation when predicting the future is to bird dog the sensational- "The car will drive itself! It will be powered by discarded banana peels!" We tend not to think about the quiet innovations that will flow in around those infrequent revolutions, and nestle themselves unnoticed in our lives until they are suddenly indispensable. Sure, I could drive to Albany and back without a satellite guided GPS system, but why would I if I have such a device? There's no equivalent fun for me in "going paper," as there might be in driving a manual transmission vehicle rather than an automatic. Flipping through a tattered road atlas on a freezing night holds no special nostalgia- I gleefully relegate that memory to the fading past.

Ten years from now, will I find it odd that I couldn't, with some strategic keywords and gestures, edit together a three minute video journal of my travels compiled from the cloud of ubiquitous video cameras along the route? Will I curse my rental for not having warned me that up ahead the driver of the Expedition was likely to drift into my lane because his eyelid blinking pattern had slowed to dangerously drowsy levels? Will I look back in horror at the barbarity of having to actually check my email to find out my wife, home with the baby, had taken ill, and that the System hadn't realized the urgency of the message and surreptitiously flashed it across the far wall of the conference room I occupied that day?

Regardless of the magical technology that may envelop us further in the coming years, I am fairly certain one element- me- will remain comfortably consistent. All the king's satellites and all the king's microprocessors still couldn't prevent me from missing my turn into the rental return lot. I was otherwise occupied, fumbling with the radio to extinguish 2Live Crew's embarrassingly blaring 'Me So Horny' before I pulled into the return line. I can only hope that the radios of the future will contain a taste subroutine that drives them to discreetly mute themselves rather than betray my guilty pleasures to the outside world.