Seems like just a blink ago that everyone was talking about the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." But it was more than 30 years ago, in 1968, that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke unleashed their epic, enigmatic vision of the future that left us breathless and wondering what it was all about.
HAL, the rogue computer that could play chess, became a memorable character, the prototype of all we expected from technology. The luxurious space station where travelers enjoyed all the amenities of a fine hotel, the journey to Jupiter and even alien contact seemed plausible, given the reality of space exploration we were witnessing at the time. I believed it could happen by 2001 we'd have a colony on the moon and maybe even Mars.
In the late '60s, PanAm took 90,000 reservations for commercial flights to the moon for the year 2000. Why not? If we could put a man on the moon, we could do anything.
What happened? Did conquering the vastness of space become too expensive? Too dangerous? Somehow we got off on a different track.
HAL didn't happen. The monster 'brains' that filled entire rooms disappeared. Computers began to take over our lives all right, but not the single, autonomous, superhuman machine in Kubrick's movie. IBM's HAL-like computer, Deep Blue, did manage to defeat Garry Kasparov, the human champion chess player, but such computers never came close to HAL's independent intelligence.
In Kubrick's film, even with all its futuristic wonders, there was no hint of the golden age of personal computers we're experiencing today. Even business experts didn't see it coming. In 1977, Kenneth Olson, a speaker at the Convention of the World Future Society, said, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."
PCs ended the era of cold, impersonal mainframe machines nobody understood and cut problem solving and data processing down to human size. The dizzy spiral from big to little is now taken for granted. Computers with screens are now small enough to fit in handbags and briefcases.
The trend toward tiny (and portable) hasn't been confined to computers, of course. Cell phones, TVs, recorded music and cameras have shrunk, too, and the list goes on. Television screens grew larger for a while, but never reached the room-sized proportions envisioned by Ray Bradbury in his futuristic novel, "Farenheit 451" in 1953. Now, even tiny TVs are trendy. But electronics haven't cornered the market on tiny stuff. Consider science's focus on DNA research, genetics, microbiology and nanotechnology.
The personal computer gave rise to the most amazing surprise of all the Internet. It cut the world of information and communication down to human size. It may have redirected our gaze away from the heavens above down to our own bodies, our own Earth and each other.
It's as though we humans decided that before we go galavanting off to colonize other planets, we want to know this one better, on an individual level. We're having the time of our lives with this chaotic, anarchic digression called the Internet that empowers us as individuals like nothing else ever has. The very planet is shrinking as millions of ordinary human beings exchange ideas, beliefs and knowledge across oceans, class and race, and national boundaries. We are coming together as a species in a kind of mind-melding not unlike that experienced by Star Trek's Mr. Spock. I doubt that anyone has a clue about where this wild ride is taking us.
We haven't forgotten those faraway galaxies. Scientists are discovering daily a universe that's far bigger and more mysterious and astonishing than any science fiction movie has envisioned. We still like those movies and books about space travel. When the time is right, we'll explore those galaxies.
In the meantime, it's a small world, after all, and that's OK.