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5 Minutes on The Verge: Matt Novak

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An interview with Matt Novak, author of Paleofuture.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak

Matt Novak writes about history, futurism, and technology for The Smithsonian on his blog Paleofuture, BBC Future, The Daily, and Pacific Standard. He has also contributed to The Verge with a feature on the history of the future of television. He lives in Los Angeles and he recently took some time out of his very busy schedule to answer my (and some of his own) questions. Follow him on Twitter at @paleofuture.

Laura June: Your blog, Paleofuture, is all about how we imagined the future in the past. How did you start doing it?

Matthew Novak: I was taking a writing class in 2007 during my last semester of school (I say last semester because I never graduated) and everyone in the class had to start a blog. Others in the class were starting personal blogs, but since I'm not a terribly interesting subject I decided I'd choose between two topics that interested me: old comedy records or past visions of the future. I've been thinking about how other generations viewed the future ever since I was a kid, visiting Epcot with my family in the early '90s. Even then, I was thinking that it was a 1980s version of the future rather than a contemporary one. Building a theme park is an expensive undertaking, so making a futurism-themed park feel fresh, even after just a decade (it opened in 1982), is a tremendously difficult feat. So anyway, I started the blog and maintained it as a hobby for almost 5 years until Smithsonian approached me in late 2011 to move my blog in with them, as it were. I quit my day job and now I also write regularly for BBC Future, The Daily, and Pacific Standard.

LJ: Why do you think we've been so consistently bad at imagining the future, and why is that sometimes really funny?

"Even the people who are building the future don't know what it will look like when they're through."

MN: We've been consistently bad at predicting the future because even the people who are building the future don't know what it will look like when they're through. Visions of the future (movies, books, comic strips, etc) are generally constructed by one person or a relatively small group of people. But it takes the forces of an entire society to build tomorrow. This is the reason that the single inventor myth (along with the fetishization of ideas as something that a single person can take credit for) is so ridiculous. The idea that pleated shorts made of plastic might very well be the hot fashion trend of 2020 could be the flap of the butterfly's wings that makes your concept drawing for the car of 2020 look ridiculous. The greatest visionaries in the history of the world have never been able to predict the minor changes that will completely re-shape what it means to make a successful phone, or revitalize a city, or cause governments to topple.

LJ: What instances have we been correct (or close to)?

MN: I'd argue that no one has ever been "correct." No matter how close a prediction is, there's always something just a little bit off about it. And that's the fun part.

LJ: Do you think we've gotten better at imagining the future over time or worse?

MN: Futurology (or future studies) emerged as a field that wanted to be taken seriously in the 1970s. But I don't know of any evidence that we've gotten any better at predicting the future. In my humble opinion, the people of 1900 were about as good at predicting the year 1930 as the people of 1970 were at predicting the world of the year 2000. Which is to say, not very good.

LJ: What is your favorite book?

MN: I'm not even sure where to begin with this question, so I'll give you an answer that may seem weird: Movies About The Movies by Christopher Ames. I haven't read it in years, and it may not even be very good. But even if you don't read it you need to see every movie that he dissects in that book. Sullivan's Travels, Sunset Boulevard, The Player, In a Lonely Place, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Star, Singin' in the Rain — Hollywood is at its best when it's tearing itself to shreds.

LJ: What is an invention or technology that you've come across that people once thought was a sure thing but never came to pass?

MN: In the mid-20th century flying cars were almost a given. We went from the horse and buggy to the moon in less than a century. Flying cars felt inevitable to a lot of young people who grew up post-WWII. And despite the press releases you see from vaporware companies every year, it doesn't seem like average people will be in flying cars anytime soon.

LJ: What influence do you think our imaginings of the future have had on the future?

"Thanks to my google alert for 'hoverboard' I get daily updates from people all over the world trying to build their own."

MN: I don't think there's any doubt that our representations of the future in fiction have influenced the world we live in today. When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than a hoverboard from Back to the Future II. Thanks to my google alert for "hoverboard" I get daily updates from people all over the world trying to build their own. It's only natural that we try to build the world we want to live in; the world we're exposed to as a wide-eyed kid, absorbing the little details and the big ideas around us.

I didn't see a number 8, so I added my own.

MN: Why are Goldfish crackers so delicious?

MN: I'm not sure, but you're totally right, they are delicious.

LJ: What will the future be like?

MN: I have no idea, but I'd challenge people to think about the future we expect least often: more of the same. That seems to be the most tragic future you could present to someone, but it seems just as likely as techno-utopian singularity orgies or the complete collapse of civilization. At 28 years old, I've got maybe 40 or 50 years left on this planet. As long as I've got some good food, enough wine, plenty of books, pride in my work, and the people that I care about are safe and healthy, I don't much care if I finally get that hoverboard. A perpetual discontent with the status quo is perfectly healthy, but sometimes you just need to take a deep breath, kiss your loved ones, and remind yourself that we'll all be dead in a hundred years. It's true what they say about there being no tomorrow.

LJ: You seem to collect a lot of paper (that's my guess!) — magazines, old ads, books, etc — so, how do you feel about the move to digital? Do you feel attached to paper or do you think digital will serve us just as well?

MN: I think there's room for a hybrid digital-paper media model well into the future. When broadcast radio was introduced, people thought it might kill newspapers. It didn't. When broadcast TV was introduced, people thought it would kill radio. It didn't. These legacy media were simply forced to adapt and make way for what the newer media did better. Radio dramas used to be huge in the 1940s. But once you can see Superman on TV, fewer people care to hear his amazing adventures described on radio. So, of course, radio was forced to do what it did best: music and news. Newspapers used to have a morning and evening edition — the rise of the late evening TV news killed the evening editions. But people rediscover what they loved about an old medium and begin to reinvent it.

"These legacy media were simply forced to adapt and make way for what the newer media did better."

Radio is a very personal medium. It lives inside your head, so it's well-suited for the hyper-personal experience of having someone shout their political beliefs at you (see the 1980s talk radio revival) or dissect the human condition (see This American Life et al). My point is not that paper books or magazines will even be popular in the future, but I suspect there will always be a market for them as long as second wave innovators hurry up and figure out the strengths of those mediums. My favorite book when I was a baby was The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It has little die-cut holes in the pages where the caterpillar is munching on its food. I still remember what those pages felt like. If I ever have kids, I don't imagine I'll be buying that one as an ebook.

Personally, I love paper. And I've spent the last five years of my life collecting it. I think many people of my generation are operating under the assumption that essentially everything worthwhile in the world has been digitized and can be found online. The vast majority of my collection of books and magazines and weird ephemera has never seen the light of the ones and zeroes, as it were. So I take a certain amount of pride in being able to digitize dead trees and do my small part in contributing to this big beautiful collective brain we know as the internet.

Read more 5 Minutes on The Verge.