Welcome to The Tin-Foil Future

In the series Firefly, there’s a wonderful line. When Wash complains that something he’s being told sounds like it’s out of science fiction, Zoe turns to him and replies “You live on a spaceship, dear.”

I had a little bit of that sort of feeling just a moment ago.  I’m sitting in an office where I need to spend some time waiting for people, so I’m watching the old film Logan’s Run, a 1976 movie based on a 1967 novel (most cringeworthy line, which could have come out of Tinder, c. 2016:  “Let’s have sex!”).

I remember the film fondly because in 1976, I took my then-girlfriend M to see it at the (no longer extant) HarMar theater in Roseville, Minnesota.  And because a few months later, when I entered the University of Minnesota, it seemed I had stepped into the future.

The movie is set in a world in which no one is permitted to live beyond the age of 30; your 30th birthday is your “last day,” on which you can compete to be “renewed” for additional life (an obvious premise of the movie is that nobody is ever renewed).  The film was largely shot in a shopping mall in Dallas, TX, and if you happen to remember 1976, well, that was close to the peak of mall growth.

So the setting was familiar, but spiced up a little bit with circular corridors all lined with shiny reflective material…it looked like tin foil but was probably chrome Mylar, a metalized film that was often sold with an adhesive backing.

The basement of the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union, which originally opened in 1940, has changed quite a lot.  When I was a student there, it featured a small cafeteria, a bowling alley, an arcade of pinball machines (that over my time there were gradually replaced with video games), bathrooms, notice boards, a sports equipment rental center, and the Whole coffeehouse (at which I worked for a few months).

The basement was mostly painted flat black, with a lurid carpet (something like this):


straight out of the late ‘60s.  And the corrider by the bathrooms?  Was round, and covered in chrome Mylar.  And (the late 1940s-1950s being the peak of the baby boom):

there was hardly anyone around who was 30 or older (even the graduate students!).

I had walked right into the future.

As I said, over next couple of years video games came to replace the pinball machines in the arcade—first, Pong and simple “bomber” games that scrolled side-to-side, then Space Invaders and Asteroids.  The mechanicals went away, and the electronics took their place.  Calculators.  Our classes were selected using punch cards, which I also used extensively during my undergrad career doing data analysis, and I lived for a time in the hyper-modern Sanford Hall.

The next summer, Star Wars was released, and I remember the glossy posters for the Tourney of Animation film festivals as well.

Anyway, all of this shot through my head while sitting at this stupid desk, typing at the keyboard of a tiny laptop computer that is probably certainly more powerful than anything that existed in 1976.  Sitting next to it is a device that is also more powerful than any computer of the day, and that is mostly used for sending messages and viewing pictures of cats.  I no longer carry around a chemistry set to test urine sugars–a tiny device on my thigh senses  blood glucose and transmits the results to a box about the size of a small cell phone, which displays them in sequence.  I no longer use syringes, but wear a small pump that supplies insulin for three days before needing attention.  I expect the two items to be fully-integrated within a few years.

The future creeps up on us.  It doesn’t appear all of a sudden.  It turns itself from something the size of a room into something the size of a brick and then it slims down and vanishes into our pockets.

And when we look back?  It looks silly.  Bell bottom jeans.  K-cars (OK, they were stupid at the time).  Typewriters.  Corded phones.  Punch cards. Troubadour sleeves.  Jar-Jar Binks.  The past looks silly because we don’t notice it getting old, and when we turn and look back, 35 years have passed.

You live on a spaceship, dear.


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