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Once, the future was spaceflight. Now it’s cat videos and status updates

It's an immensely strange thing, the end of the space age. Imagine telling the vast audience who, in 1969, watched a live broadcast of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon that they would lose interest in the endeavour within three years.

Spaceflight was the very embodiment of the future, yet the moon program came to a quiet end. Over the decades, manned spaceflight went from a defining human achievement to a very expensive niche interest. Those viewers may or may not have recognized that the marvel that was going to describe their futures wasn't on the moon, but right in front of them: the broadcast itself.

The future ain't what it used to be. Neil Armstrong was in the aspiration business, and his passing is a reminder that things didn't unfold exactly according to plan. Technology did change the world, but not in the ways that those of us who were born in the space age were bred to expect. Instead of travelling to the stars, we went and built a most peculiar system of global telecommunications.

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A generation ago, humans were sending ambassadors into the sky. Now, we're watching videos of people walking into walls, wincing through the comments on newspaper articles and making poorly advised investments in social networks.

We're worrying about our attention spans and wondering if smartphones are addling our teenagers' brains. It doesn't really have the same ring to it. Did we get it all wrong when we decided that, instead of being out in the stars, the future was to be found in staring ever-more-intently at the Earth?

The Internet is, in a not entirely appealing way, a victory of mind over matter. Space-age technology was pictured as a series of slick conveniences for the human body. It was especially preoccupied with the idea of moving people around physically: An automated car on an automated highway to whoosh you to your destination, a space-age plane to zap you around the world and food to feed you in pill form. Technology was to be the great facilitator, the bringer of push-button shortcuts.

Information technology was envisioned in the space age, and it was meant to be yet another modern convenience. Hypertext – the linked pages that we use to navigate information today – was first envisioned during the space-race years. In 1968, a concept computer called the Dynabook presaged the notebooks and tablets that would come decades later; it was intended to provide children with unlimited access to digital media. Even the World Wide Web itself, decades later, came out of a project to share data between researchers at a particle-physics lab.

These visions of the digital future saw computers as enhanced libraries: dispassionate stores of data, content to be left in the corner when not needed. They promised seamless, transparent communications, efficient data retrieval and modern convenience for the working man.

Alas. Communications media are never transparent, and humans are never so tidy. The sharp-edged efficiency of well-ordered databases was edged out by the opinions of the early bloggers. The dusty tomes of encyclopedias were edged out by Wikipedia, a creation so amazing in its scope, organic growth – and, let's face it, reliability – that it must surely be one of the great wonders of the world. The media was upended by a roiling, noisy hierarchy of voices.

And more and more, the work of being an individual has moved online. Social networks have given us "ambient awareness," the peripheral, imperfect knowledge of how other people are doing, without having to contact them directly. With personal broadcasting comes personal performance. The careful, sometimes unwitting curation of everyday life isn't just for narcissists any more – it's a basic skill acquired by anyone using Facebook.

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People photograph everything they see with little plastic tablets attached to their hands, and post the pictures online, in part to share and in part as a kind of auxiliary memory. Now that photos, music, documents and correspondence are all getting pushed into the cloud, we wear our mental baggage on our bodies. In many ways, we truly are moving into the unknown.

When I was very young, I had one of those cardboard cut-out books that depicted fleets of shiny new space shuttles servicing mighty orbiting colonies, sending expeditions forth to Mars and so on into the chrome-plated future. Wiggle the tab, make the space station girder move. I assembled that space station over and over till the tab got mashed to a pulp and the station would assemble no more. No one ever gave me a book about growing up to use Twitter. It would not have been a very good book.

But it is a good future to live in. A future in which we can send a machine to Mars on our behalf, and watch video of the people who created it rejoicing on its landing, over and over, because it's so good. What lies ahead will be just as disorienting as what we've come through. It will affect everyone more directly and profoundly than the space race ever could. Bits will probably be profoundly bizarre. We may have hoped for a network that would bring some computerized convenience to human affairs, but instead we created a network in our own image – a grand mess of self-representation, deception, delusion, creativity, commerce, love, sex and cat videos.

In the end, it's reassuring. We're still us.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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