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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Babylon 5 and the problem with futurology

I’ve been watching Babylon 5 for the last couple of weeks. One of those sci-fi shows I never got into when it was on originally, but felt that I ought to know better.

The special effects are definitely of their time (early 90s), the sets are cheap, the scripts less than subtle and the acting occasionally hammy. But the consistent plot arc over the series is fantastic and highly addictive.

As with most sci-fi though, what’s really intriguing is the technology and the culture. This was a series that was made less than 20 years ago, yet it seems as out of touch with modern reality as the earliest Star Trek series.

For example, newspapers are customised but still delivered on paper via voice controlled vending machines. Computers have voice-activated interfaces yet take hours to process complex data queries. Work still largely takes place on paper forms.

It just shows how hard it is to forecast the fast-paced development of technology, and how quickly our culture adapts to new norms.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback on BBC Radio Manchester: 1991

Over at the BBC this afternoon for Flashback with Becky Want, talking about the gadgets of years past. Listen live around Manchester on 95.1FM, or on the iPlayer if you’re more digitally inclined.

Today’s years are 1991 and 2002. The latter year I’ve already posted some notes on previously, so here’s a few points on 1991 — not the most exciting year in technology…

  • The World Wide Web went live, which is clearly huge, but I believe much of the work on it including its specification, was completed the previous year.
  • Trevor Baylis introduced the wind-up radio, inspired by stories that safe sex messages weren’t reaching rural parts of Africa because of the lack of mains power and the price of batteries. Baylis is the archetypal potting shed inventor, an eccentric ex-stuntman with a creative mind, and I think he probably did much to kickstart enthusiasm for inventing stuff in the UK.
  • IBM exited the type-writer business as PCs made the devices increasingly obsolete.
  • The first phones appeared on passenger planes that could make calls from anywhere in the skies. Weird to think that was almost two decades ago, when soon we’ll have mobile phones working on flights.

100 years earlier there was a much more important gadget arriving on the scene. One that makes even the Web look unimportant (well, almost). The electric kettle first appeared in 1891.

Tom Cheesewright