Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Technology Is Cyclical

Beepers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by piggypa/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about the late, great 30 Rock—in particular, an episode from Season 1. Dennis Duffy (Dean Winters), the marvelously terrible boyfriend of Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), is a bit of a technology entrepreneur—by which I mean he is the Beeper King, the last beeper salesman on Manhattan. “Which is cool,” his then-girlfriend Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) tells a skeptical friend. But when he tries to sell beepers to her staff of TV writers, she loses it and tells him to leave. “You work in a business. Businesspeople need beepers,” he insists. “No, they need cellphones,” she says, exasperated. “Oh yeah, for now,” he replies. “But the beeper’s gonna be making a comeback. Technology’s cyclical.”

The joke, of course, is that technology isn’t cyclical—that the beeper is as dead as the former Beeper King, who killed himself.

But this week, technology seemed at least a little cyclical when Facebook announced the launch of Facebook Campus, which it described as “a college-only space designed to help students connect with fellow classmates over shared interests. Facebook Campus makes it easy to find and start conversations within your college community.” The Beeper King episode of 30 Rock aired in 2006—the same year that “The Facebook,” which had been founded in 2004 exclusively for college students, opened up to anyone over the age of 13. “Like in the early days when Facebook was a college-only network, students can find classmates by class, major, year and more,” the announcement says. Cyclical!

In technology, it seems, almost every debate has some sort of antecedent. Silicon Valley’s software patent wars? In 2013, Adam Mossoff wrote for Future Tense about the vicious sewing machine patent wars of the 1850s. Worried about who that person you’re speaking to on the internet might truly be? Telegraph literature (yep, that was a thing) featured catfishing story lines, as Britt Peterson wrote about for us in 2014. Sure, these aren’t examples of tech itself being cyclical—but the conversations show that even tech stories that feel modern have been with us longer than we remember. And for the record: Some people (particularly doctors) really do still use pagers.

These cyclical conversations are a stark contrast to a word that has been uttered again and again this year: unprecedented. This week, the adjective has in particular described the horrific wildfires in Oregon and California. In a deeply moving Future Tense piece, Jane C. Hu writes, “Before I moved to the West Coast a decade ago, I understood that, of course, there were fires in this part of the country, but I didn’t understand the emotional toll until I’d lived through a few. (I feel extraordinarily grateful that I have not yet even had to evacuate; so many people I’ve met have lost loved ones, beloved pets, and their homes.) It’s difficult to describe the sense of doom a heavy cloak of wildfire smoke imparts: the claustrophobia of staying inside, the often intense heat of fire weather in areas that largely lack air conditioning, the orange tint of the sky, the sun glowing an ominous red. It’s the same goosebump-raising awe you might experience during a solar eclipse, but tinged with fear and existential angst that we have front-row seats to the destruction of climate change.” That orange tint, as she explained in a separate Future Tense article, is a result of the way smoke blocks shorter wavelength colors.

Here are some other recent Future Tense pieces:

Wish We’d Published This

First, a little context: On Tuesday, the Guardian published a piece “written” by a language generator known as GPT-3. The headline: “A Robot Wrote This Entire Article. Are You Scared Yet, Human?” Except, among other things, GPT-3 had actually written eight articles, which Guardian editors then smushed together into the published piece. In response, the Next Web wrote a great takedown: “The Guardian’s GPT-3-Generated Article Is Everything Wrong With AI Media Hype.”

Future Tense Recommends

Last month, I wrote about my love of pandemic sci-fi, and how it missed the more mundane horrors of the virus we face today. Now I’d like to lavish praise on a work of pandemic historical fiction: Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, a beautifully written novel set in 1918, about a nurse working in a Dublin hospital ward for women who are both pregnant and infected with the Spanish flu. Donoghue began writing the novel before the coronavirus, but according to her afterword, she and her publisher sped up the process when the pandemic hit. The novel touches on the realities of health care work, gender roles, trauma—but it also reminds us that a pandemic is not forever.

What Next: TBD

On Friday, guest host Celeste Headlee spoke with Abrahm Lustgarten, a senior reporter at ProPublica, about the looming threat of mass climate migration. And last week’s episode looked at how, despite post-Ferguson hype, ubiquitous filming hasn’t become a magical solution to police brutality.

Upcoming Events

After a little summer break, Future Tense online events are back. On Wednesday, Sept. 16, we’ll try to answer the question, “How Should We Talk About QAnon?” In particular, we will address how platforms and journalists should respond to the baseless conspiracy theory. RSVP here.

And on Friday, Sept. 18, we’ll be back with the first event from the Policing and Technology Project, a new initiative from Future Tense and American University Washington College of Law’s Tech, Law and Security program. The series, and this kick-off event, will address the role—positive and negative—that technology can play in the pursuit of police reform. RSVP here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.