Stop the treadmill, I want to get off

45 years ago the Eagle landed and human history was forever changed. Except that the dream of space travel has seen some stumbling blocks in the half century since then.

It took us 65 years to go from first flight to landing on the moon. In less than the span of a single human life we went from earthbound to stellar traveller, but we’ve been bound to a low orbit of our home planet since the last lunar explorers left their dusty footprints on our neighbourhood rock in 1972. True, we’ve sent unmanned probes to the farthest reaches of our solar system and we’ve been digging around on Mars for some time, but when will Mankind once more head off into the great beyond, and fulfill Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

When Kennedy made his visionary declaration to send a man to the moon before the decade was out, he conveyed the spirit of the age. The sixties were a time of renewal and rebirth. The world had emerged from the horrors of the second world war and global economies were on the rise. True, the spectre of Communism loomed large and we were one short step away from total annihilation during the Cuban missile cruise, but that little blip aside, the sixties was a decade full of promise.

And since then? It seems our world has become smaller and our ambitions thwarted. Back in 1969, anyone watching the grainy black and white images would surely assume that another half century would see a man step on the surface of Mars; that the grammatically incorrect world of Star Trek would propel us through wormholes to different galaxies. The sixties were a Golden Age. I was a schoolboy back then, and I recall drawing cars of the next century. Without exception, they all flew. Even in the Eighties, Steven Spielberg had us all in flying cars and hover boards by 2015. Our visions of the future so often overshoot the real scientific advances, and yet we routinely fail to predict the innovations that do make a real difference.

I am writing this post by touching a glass screen on a device less than a half-inch thick, with no wires connecting me to anything. This same device can access all knowledge known to man. Most people will use this awesome technological innovation to view videos of cats doing stupid things.

This device didn’t exist five years ago, and even when it was invented, no-one could see any purpose for it. Now, the iPad is the most used item in our household, and has spawned a whole genre of technological gadgetry. Of course, we often take these new technologies in our stride because each builds on the last. Indeed, we become ever more demanding, wondering why the latest product fails to deliver this or that functionality.

Our cars may not fly, but they can now park themselves, and they have multiple technologies to warn us of impending accidents and to react to situations we’ve not even seen. We can watch live TV from almost anywhere, keep up to date with free video chat across the globe, send messages around the world in seconds. Medical advances have eradicated many killer diseases, and improved the survival rates of victims a hundred-fold. Our planet now supports more human life than ever before. We accept these global, macro-level advances as almost mundane, largely because each builds on the advances of the past.

Yet in the midst of all this hustle and rush, we reach a point where we crave simplicity, a return to the ‘good old days’. It seems as if the technological demands outstrip our mental ability to adapt to the change. Just one more social media channel, one more entertainment option, one more box of electronic gizmo with another unintelligible remote control. I wonder if this craving  of the simple life is a result of the pace of change, or whether it has more to do with age than anything else (regular readers will see a theme developing here with my recent post on the Andropause phenomenon).

I think Douglas Adams likely hit the nail on the head. Our aversion to technology comes not as a reaction to the complexities of life, but is merely a natural consequence of aging:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

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