FUTURE BOY: If the Future Is Here, Why Live in the Past?

Future BoyFuture Boy likes to ask questions. Such as, if the future’s so great, why don’t we just go there right now? In a way that’s what my last post was about – the Road to the Future is paved with many small steps and few if any large ones. But what if our perspective were one of space rather than time?

When we look across our planet, in a way we’re looking across time as well. Many cities feel like the Future has already arrived, with advanced communications, robust economies, factories full of robots and streets navigated by self-driving beer trucks. Yet many other towns and whole countries (sometimes even neighboring ones) feel locked in a past century, streets teeming with goats, poverty and disease.

But we already know how to fix all that, don’t we? Why not just leap to the glorious Present, where lifespans are long, hunger and smallpox are eradicated and every kid gets an education and has a roof over their head. Why not just Leapfrog?

Leapfrogging is a concept for quickly bringing underdeveloped nations to a higher plane by just skipping ahead to the latest and greatest technology. For example, while much of the world built up their communication networks a step at a time from the telegraph to the telephone to the mobile phone, in recent years many third-world countries skipped all the intermediate steps and went directly to mobile phones. Leapfrog!

But that woman with the cell phone just took a crap in the field next to the school. The phones will come in handy when summoning doctors, but will be little help in preventing the village children from getting dysentery in the first place.

Some things just can’t be Leapfrogged. Public sanitation requires investment, can take many years to build and requires steady public funding for upkeep and maintenance. Even high-tech solar-powered outhouses need regular attention, and you would need enough of them to service the entire population. Leapfrogging can be cheaper, but it’s not free.

Physical laws must be observed. Until someone invents an industrial-sized Star Trek transporter, goods must be physically moved to market, and doing that quickly and cheaply requires not only modern transportation systems but all the 21st century logistics expertise that the Amazons and Walmarts of the world provide. Leapfrogging delivery drones can only carry so much stuff so far. Infrastructure is everything.

And don’t forget the requisite 21st century political and social systems. Where caste systems prevail, personal freedoms are repressed, or civil wars rage, those cell phones are only good for posting pictures of fresh corpses. They won’t feed you, clothe you, protect you or heal you. A 21st century society can’t exist without the underpinnings that support it – institutions, social systems, the rule of law, taxes and all the rest.

So leap away if and where you can – but the intermediate steps can’t always be skipped.

Author: whomren

Wayne Homren is a longtime student of the history of science, technology and business who’s always been drawn to the future. As a software professional he worked in artificial intelligence back in the 1980s, before it got cold and then hot again in the current century. He was into the Internet before there were browsers, declaring to others “This will change the world.” He started a blog before the word was invented, and was a product manager for the pioneering search engine Lycos before the word Google became a verb. He built cyber tools for inspecting IPv6 packets long before IPv4 addresses were exhausted, and today is a Data Scientist for the U.S. Department of Defense, where the past, present and future often coexist. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and their three children.