As we approach 2015, the year Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in the second Back to the Future film, a date that seemed wildly ambitious to young children dreaming of Hoverboards (what? almost sort of real?) everywhere, I have been thinking about the time that has passed between the presentation of an image of the future and history catching up.

Through a quirk of technological boredom, I swapped my out trusty MacBook for a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 two months ago. I’ll write more on this later, but one of the primary motivations for the switch was that replacing one old Mac with a newer model just didn’t excite me. This is definitely within “first world problem” status, but laptops, tablets, and phones are personal devices. They are extensions of our minds and bodies and with the variety of offerings, every person can pick a model to his or her choosing without issue, so might as well make the choice count.

But what makes a new MacBook? It’s thinner. And faster. And lacks legacy drives and ports. It’s a fantastic machine. But it is essentially the same as the first notebook computers I saw as a kid, 486-powered beasts that they were. The Surface may only be dazzling me with it’s differences, but for now, if that’s all it is, it’s enough.

The somewhat new site JSTOR Daily sent me on this little thought carousel. JSTOR, a database of academic journals and articles, has it’s issues, and that rabbit hole is vast, but this effort is one that I fully approve of: taking old content and bringing it back to attention through new pieces. That’s it. Write something using the vast library of research as a starting point and place of support and then get to work.

The topics have been wide ranging – economics, gender equality, history, and maps – along with many more, like pirates.

But the article in question was (Un)Catalogued: Reading the Landscape. Written by historian Megan Kate Nelson, the piece looks at her exploration of New Mexico as part of research for a book. As great as the read is – and the information about a river moving over time causing havoc with limited maps of the area – the quote that got me was:

I am not the first historian to have done this, and to write about it. And I am quite skeptical of the “hallowed ground” notion that one can “feel” the past by standing in a historic place. When I visit these sites, I’m not out to get a visceral connection to history. I’m there to get a sense of the landscape, to make links between the documents I’m reading and at the images I’m looking at, and the places in which they were produced.

It’s a viewpoint I don’t always share. Visiting Pompeii was amazing. I felt something walking those roads and looking in the ruined buildings. Walking down the streets of Palo Alto and being within spitting distance of the HP garage was exciting but not in a hallowed ground way.

More than anything though, I thought of Captain Picard teaching Data about the emotional connecting humans get being up close and personal with history. Touching the road, door, chair, or missile.

PICARD: Isn’t it amazing? This ship used to be a nuclear missile.

DATA: It is an historical irony that Doctor Cochrane would use an instrument of mass-destruction to inaugurate an era of peace.

(Picard feels the Titan V rocket)

PICARD: It’s a boyhood fantasy, Data. I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian, but I was never able to touch it.

DATA: Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?

PICARD: Oh, yes. For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way. It makes it seem more real.

DATA: I am detecting imperfections in the titanium casing. Temperature variations in the fuel manifold. It’s no more real to me now than it was a moment ago.

People have taken to smartphones like they have few other devices. While it’s just a thought in my head, though potentially there is research out there, some part of that must be touch. These devices that are essentially just screen have captured babies and the elderly, teens and their parents, college-aged kids and those who are calling themselves adults for the first time.

Historical sites can cause a notion of something else just by setting foot at the location. Touching a device or artifact adds another layer. Just imagine how different museums would be or could be in the future where sculptures and paintings could be felt through some type of holographic projection.

In the end, I’m left with another curious thought: does Cypher’s speech in The Matrix:


You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious.

align with Dumbledore’s parting words to Harry Potter:

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?


Image copyright Paramount Pictures, 1996.

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