Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

Modern Family

We may lack jetpacks, but technology is no less wonderful for that.

Spend a little time in the more tech-minded corners of the Web and you will eventually come across a lament: “The future has arrived,” someone will say, half in jest. “So where’s my jetpack?”

Into this one succinct meme are distilled all manner of disappointments. Sure, its progenitors will concede, the advancement of the microchip and the arrival of the Internet have significantly altered the way we communicate: With just an iPhone, we can send videos across oceans in a matter of seconds, we can order our groceries without leaving our couch, and with just one swipe of our credit card we can stream pretty much anything that has ever been filmed or recorded.

But the world doesn’t look especially different today from how it did in 1954. Children who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War were promised a wholesale change in their lifestyles — not just hoverboards and robot butlers and easy-to-use video chatting, but an in toto alteration of the classic American aesthetic. Open up an original brochure for Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland,” turn on an old episode of The Jetsons, or drive past the rusting remnants of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and you will detect the auguring of an architectural revolution that never came to pass. In the 1930s, middle-class types were told that by the year 2000 they’d be living in spherical houses that could move with their owners. In the 1950s, Monsanto’s “house of the future” was set to cram a whole family into a hard plastic shell atop a garage that would hold a self-driving car. In the 1960s, we were all going to live on the Moon.

And now? As the British comedian Jack Dee puts it, it can at times be hard not to suspect that the “information superhighway” was little more than a clever marketing line for “typing in your bedroom,” and that “the future” largely consists of low-interest mortgages on timber-framed houses and better Wi-Fi routers for our laptops.

Or does it? Curmudgeonly as I can be at times, I’m not sure that the pessimists yearning for jetpacks are correct in their rueful resignation. Not only do today’s Americans casually use technology that would have made their grandparents gawk (imagine explaining Netflix to your recent ancestors), but they are also beginning to use it to create precisely the sort of “futuristic lifestyles” of which the 1950s generation could but dream. Using products that are available off the shelf at the Apple Store or at Best Buy, networking tools that come standard with any household cable package, and a little DIY know-how, it is now possible to refashion your home without spending a fortune.

I know, because I’ve done it. In the past year, I’ve put in digital thermometers and Web-connected smoke alarms, installed Wi-Fi-enabled locks, replaced my old filament bulbs with LED lights that can be controlled from a browser or an app, added a garage-door opener that senses when I arrive home, and wired in a set of security cameras that I can monitor from anywhere — even, should I desire, from 30,000 feet in the air. By adding Amazon Echo and the voice-control functions that come with even a basic cellphone, I have been able to program these devices to respond immediately to my spoken command.

And, with a little tinkering with free sync services such as IFTTT, I have programmed them all to work together. Suppose I want the lights to go down, the TV to switch on, and the speakers to turn up to a pre-approved level? No problem. I just have to say “Movie time” aloud while in the den and the room changes before my eyes. Suppose I am ready for bed and I need the doors to lock, the lights to switch off (except in the bedroom), the temperature to rise, and the garage door to close? Easy. A single button press can do all of those things. And suppose I want to do something somewhat more prosaic, such as reorder the usual toothpaste? I can just ask Amazon to send it to me. Rosie the Robot, eat your heart out.

To the skeptic, these developments may sound like gimmicks or, worse, indulgences. But they have changed the way I live at least as much as the “world-changing” offerings that General Electric boasted in the 1960s changed the lifestyles of that generation’s tinkerers. During my wife’s recent pregnancy, I worried that she would fall in the winter’s snow. By installing Wi-Fi-controlled lights that came on automatically when it got dark — and, more important, that came on extra bright when she got within a mile of our house — I made sure that her path from the outdoor garage to the house was always lit. Moreover, because the smart locks on the front door no longer require a physical key, I knew that she would never again be locked out of the house (or put at risk — neither of us has to be home to let visitors in, nor do we have to give or leave a key for strangers). What price that peace of mind?

Once I discovered how much is on the market, I found it hard to stop. Because our smoke alarms are linked both to the local police station and to our phones — and because of security cameras accessible from anywhere — we now know immediately if there is a problem at home, even if we are abroad. Because we have remote control of our thermostats, we can now let the house get cold or hot when we are not there, then heat it up or cool it down when we’re on our way back — which has dramatically reduced our heating bill. Soon, these sorts of features will be available on dishwashers, stoves, microwaves, and refrigerators; and eventually, even the most standard equipment will be able to distinguish between family members and guests, react to individuals’ locations within the home, and even respond to biometric variables such as body temperature and heart rate. It cannot be too long until one can sport a wristwatch that monitors skin temperature and instructs the heating system accordingly. How, one wonders, would the future-watchers of the 1950s have reacted to that?

And yet we still seem to feel that we are doing less well than we should be. Why?

The answer, I’d argue, is that human beings have a tendency to privilege the superficial over the real, and thus to draw the wrong conclusions about how much progress we are actually making. In almost every depiction of the future — be it Blade Runner, 2001, or Back to the Future Part II — the “advanced” nature of the society is suggested as much by peculiar clothes and oddly shaped buildings as by technological developments. This has skewed our expectations of what real change looks like, such that if the person selling the latest gizmos is wearing a blue polo shirt rather than a boiler suit — and if the device he is hawking comes with self-installation instructions rather than as an integrated part of a gleaming, retro-futuristic space home — we are less dazzled. We were told that the must-have gadgets of the year 2015 would be large and metallic with beeping noises and flashing lights. When, instead, they were small, quiet, and housed in beige plastic, we were underwhelmed. And when the great strides in computer and home technology came not via the centralized planning of a government or mega-corporation but from a thousand separate places via a million incremental, hard-won advances, we were skeptical.

What we have is even better than what we were promised. But it can be hard to see, because it defies our expectations. In the ’50s, the model was Robert Moses; in 2016, it is the plucky little startup in a Silicon Valley garage. In the ’60s, we were promised EPCOT; instead, we got suburban sprawl.

The future may not have jetpacks. But that does not mean it isn’t here.

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