Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

The View from Mudsock Heights: A Tiny Plastic Rectangle Reminds Me What Terrible Futurists We Are

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 6:50 AM

For some reason, talk turned to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. You may remember the remnants of that event, especially if you saw the movie, “Men In Black.” The centerpiece of the fair was a huge, skeletonized globe, called the “Unisphere,” and there were two tall, modern-looking observatory towers that in the movie were actually captured flying saucers. My favorite line of the movie has to do with the fair having disguised an alien invasion: “Why else would they hold it in Queens?”

Somewhere around here I have an Official Guide to the fair, which I got for a dime at a thrift shop someplace. What I remember most about it is the advertisement for Bulova’s “Accutron Astronaut” wristwatch. This electric watch used a tuning fork to ensure accuracy, which was guaranteed to be within “a minute a month.”

Tragically, it was at the fair that Walt Disney introduced a pavilion which inflicted a song, “It’s a Small, Small World” on an innocent planet, and things have not been the same since.

But in 1964 the future looked bright. Science would soon save us from all the world’s ills. Already one could purchase dinnerware made of a substance called Melmac, believed to be part of a galactic plot to undermine Earthling aesthetics. You could drop it and it wouldn’t break. In fact, the stuff was indestructible. Were it not for the intervention of environmental alarmists the entire planet would now be hidden under a layer of Melmac plates. All of the Melmac dishes ever made still exist. Some people even collect them, though the collectors mostly keep their terrible secret to themselves lest they be picked up by agents of the EPA.

Secret agents were a big part of popular culture in 1964. The first few James Bond movies had been released. Capitalizing on the trend there was, coinciding with the fair, a new television program, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., in which Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were cool because of their nifty futuristic gadgets.

A big part of what the future held involved miniaturization. We’ve always been in love with big things made small. (We’ve also been frightened by them — spies were gathering our secrets, which they would reduce to a tiny dot and send to their fiendish masters as a “microdot,” which would be a period at the end of a sentence in an otherwise unthreatening letter or else hidden under a postage stamp.)

The predictions of 1964 were in many respects laughably wrong. We are not able now to vacation on Mars (nor, if we could, would we — it seems to be a pretty boring place). We are not commuting to work using personal aircraft (good thing — enough people have a hard time steering their vehicles in two dimensions).

But some things were truly prescient. Napoleon Solo’s “communicator” was no smaller than a typical cellular telephone of today. Computers now rule our lives. And while we do not regularly employ the feared microdot, we’re close.

The other day I purchased a little card for a recording device, though it would work in a camera or a cellular phone, too. It is called a “microSDHC” card, and is a rectangle about a half inch by three-eighths inch and very thin. You could hide it under a postage stamp.
It will store 8 gigabytes of data. To put this in perspective, that’s more than all the computer data that existed in all the world in 1964. This tiny thing can store more than 25,000 pictures, or 44 hours of movies, or — get this — 4 million pages of text. You could put an entire library on this dinky thing! (Or all the secrets of a fairly big country!)
Of course, then you would probably lose it in the laundry.

This tiny bit of circuitry revived my ability to be amazed. I don’t think it would be practical to make such a thing much smaller — this one is almost too little to handle without tweezers.

In 1964, we were not guessing that data storage would drive so much of our lives and economy today. We have since then discovered that we like to have things the size of cigarette lighters which hold all the music we want. We love cameras the size of a pack of cigarettes that will take pictures endlessly, no film involved. (Of course, the volume of data expands to consume all available space — in 1964, the only data that were prepared for computer use were data that were useful on computers. Now most of us generate oodles of digitized stuff every day, and much of that is of little use to us or anyone else.)

But that misses a more enjoyable issue. We’re really awful at predicting the future. So as long as we have data space to burn, I think we should all create little documents containing: predictions. What do you think daily life will be like 10 years hence? How about 25 years from now? Fifty years?

What things will change? What things will remain the same?

Then, after 10, or 25, or 50 years, open these little time capsules.

My prediction is that in each case, you’ll get a good laugh.