February 2022
Alan Dean Foster

Keeping Pace

— or not

I love tech. But I don’t feel the need to have the latest and greatest.

I have an advanced electric car (a Tesla), but it’s six years old. There’s nothing wrong with it, so why get rid of it? Sure, I’d like to have the latest version. But I don’t need the latest version. We have a modern OLED TV, but it’s several years old and I don’t feel compelled to buy the newest model. The same goes for every piece of technology I can think of, from space heaters to cell phones to computer mice. As much as I admire and enjoy new tech, I don’t feel I have to own the latest and (supposedly) greatest.

It got me thinking: does every generation feel the same way? Or is it just during the last hundred years that tech has advanced and changed so much that a new iteration of a familiar device or tool comes along every year to draw our attention? How did people feel when their tech was new?

“Well, this newfangled movable type is all well and good, but I prefer the artistry of a one-at-a-time handwritten book.”

“Who needs a handheld radio? Ours is a piece of furniture, solid wood, and it looks great in the living room. Yours just disappears into a drawer.”

“Silent film is an art form. Add sound and you destroy the artistry. Besides, what theater is going to pay to install a whole new audio system when they can just hire one organist who can change the music every night all by himself?”

“A cartoon that runs longer than an hour? No audience will sit still for that.” Walt Disney heard that one plenty when he was developing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Here is a selection of my all-time favorites:

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?”
Associates of David Sarnoff responding to the latter's call for investment in the radio, 1921

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big-business mainframe computers, arguing against the personal computer in 1977

“I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and foundering at sea.” — novelist HG Wells, 1901

“Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical (sic) and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.”
Simon Newcomb; the Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk 18 months later. Newcomb was not impressed.

“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.”
President of the Michigan Savings Bank, advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903

“Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure.”
Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison's light bulb, 1880

“There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.”
FCC Commissioner Tunis Craven, 1961; the first commercial communications satellite went into service in 1965.

“This telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
Internal memo at Western Union, c.1877

If you look back at the history of tech, nearly every transforming piece of technology had multiple, serious, often highly respected, well-educated decriers. That’s why when something new comes along, I may not buy it, but neither do I dismiss it out of hand. Those who do end up looking like fools as often as they do seers. And I’d rather be a failed seer than a confirmed fool.

This is a serious matter when one is writing science-fiction. You don’t have to be predictable, but you don’t want to end up looking like an idiot, either. Tech advances so rapidly now that if you don’t keep up, you can be left with what you wrote looking downright silly.

That doesn’t mean you have to buy everything, just to monitor developments. If you do that, you can stay a bit ahead of the curve both creatively and financially. My Apple desktop works just fine. I’d love to have a new one, but I’ve known for a couple of years that they’ll be coming out with a newer, faster model. This year, most likely. Will I buy it? I don’t know. I will certainly admire it, but my present machine works just fine.

On the other hand, I did finally break down and buy a snow-blower. An electric one. Pretty new tech. I’m proud of myself for waiting.

Of course, if it doesn’t snow much this year, I’ll look pretty darn silly, and it won’t have anything to do with tech.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.