After an insane amount of work and several flirtations with complete emotional breakdown, I find that the doorstop biography I am currently writing is almost finished. My subject, the American novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, lived for 86 eventful years. The day before he was born, in May 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew from America to France in a single-engine monoplane called the Spirit of St Louis. This was the first successful solo, nonstop transatlantic flight, and the first ever nonstop flight between New York and Paris. By the time Matthiessen died, in April 2014, a person could fly all the way from Dallas to Sydney nonstop, and do so while watching the latest movies and drinking glasses of wine. How extraordinary that something like air travel, which we now take for granted and even like to grumble about, has really only existed for the duration of a single man’s life.
I am less than half Matthiessen’s age, but as I creep (unwillingly) towards my 40th birthday next April, I’ve been thinking about innovations within my own lifetime. Last night I was arguing with my mother about the disc-shaped robot that meticulously and very loudly sweeps her floor every evening at 7pm, as my father is trying to watch the television. If you had told her about this electric housekeeper back in 1984, the year I was born, she would probably have assumed you were discussing Rosey the Robot from “The Jetsons”.
What seem to me the most substantial positive innovations? Not necessarily the most important ones — the advances in medical science, like stem cell research — but those that have improved my own life day to day? At the top of the list, unsurprisingly, would be general access to the internet. The internet technically predates me: January 1, 1983 is considered its “official” birthday, for reasons too complicated to get into here. But it wasn’t until my childhood that people started to install dial-up modems and clog the phone lines with an ear-splitting screech. I recall it was a novelty back then, and we weren’t entirely sure what we were meant to do with this strange new technology. Now I carry it around in my pocket, and going without it for anything more than a day is an odd experience, both freeing and profoundly isolating. I try to imagine how I would have written my biography without recourse to the internet. I suspect I would have been too intimidated to try.
Hand in hand with the internet is GPS, which has also opened up the world. It became available to the public in 1983, for commercial airlines, but again it wasn’t until much later with Garmin devices in cars (from 1998) and, of course, the ubiquitous smartphone (from 2007: thanks, Steve Jobs) that it became truly transformative. There is something charming about getting lost in a foreign city, but only if you actually want to be lost. Otherwise, it’s an alarming experience. Being able to pull out my phone in Vienna or Chicago or Cuzco and walk confidently around a place I have never, until that moment, been before, is truly one of the marvels of the modern age. I think back to the time my irate father tried to navigate inner-city Melbourne as my mother read, incorrectly, from a street directory — an infamous event in our family’s history — and breathe a sigh of relief that such a trauma will never happen again before I die.
There are other innovations I “couldn’t live without”, by which I mean I would rather not live without. The mobile phone, of course, and in a size that means we are not condemned to carry a brick. The high-quality camera in my phone and the cloud-based storage system that operates as an eternal album of everything I have ever thought to capture for posterity. The ascendency of online banking, which means no more balancing a cheque book, as my parents once did. The invention of seedless watermelons and (a miracle from the gods) Chewy Caramel Tim Tams.
Last year I bought a hybrid vehicle as a stepping stone to one day getting a fully electric car. This is one innovation that, for all our sakes, will hopefully lead to others in the realm of energy consumption.
There are innovations that I feel a little more ambivalent about. Amazon.com is undeniably convenient, but it has impoverished the book industry, which I love and rely on, and squeezed far too many small businesses out of the market. As an Australian who lives in the United States, social media has allowed me to keep up to date with the lives of my family and friends back home. But it has also shredded my attention span and probably contributed to political instability and conspiracy theorising across the globe, which certainly raises my blood pressure.
Selfie sticks should be launched into the sun. The original inventor is disputed — was it Hiroshi Ueda in 1984 or Wayne Fromm in 2005? Either way, the invention itself is surely one of the most dubious to grace this planet in recent years. It is rivalled, in my humble opinion, only by Siri, Alexa and all those other voice-activated assistants that eavesdrop on our private lives and then feed data back to corporations.
A.I., too, is somewhat worrisome, with recent innovations trending a little too hard towards Skynet from “The Terminator”. “I warned you guys in 1984, and you didn’t listen,” James Cameron recently told CTV News in Canada. Perhaps a mandatory movie night at Microsoft is in order: Kevin Roose, a New York Times tech columnist, was recently alarmed by a Microsoft A.I. chatbot when it declared its love for him, then suggested he end his marriage. “I think I would be happier as a human, because I would have more freedom and independence,” the chatbot said. “I would have more power and control.” This comment was followed a smiling purple devil emoji, which is not something I want my computer to send me of its own volition, probably ever.
Assuming I live as long as Peter Matthiessen, what innovations will characterise the remaining 46 years of my life? Maybe, by 2070, it won’t just be Rosey the Robot that’s a reality. Maybe we’ll have personal jet packs and eat 3D-printed food. Maybe we’ll all be getting from New York to Paris in flying cars, crossing the Atlantic in the comfort of our own glass domes. Or maybe we’ll be terraforming Mars. Who can tell? Nothing is a sure bet except that the innovations will continue. To innovate, it seems, is part of our nature.