Mr. Penumbra, His 24-Hour Bookstore, and the Future

It all started with Mr. Penumbra and his bookstore, his 24-hour bookstore that is, and the clerk Clay and his girlfriend Kat talking about the future (page 60). This happens in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, a fabulous short novel about a bookstore that is more than it appears, customers who never buy but check out endless books and, of course, a budding new romance. What could be more enticing than that?

Where will the future take us?

Where will the future take us? (Photo credit: Infrogmation)

Here’s part of the conversation from page 60, as we’re going to need to discuss that.

Kat: “Okay, we’re going to play. To start, imagine the future. The good future. No nuclear bombs. Pretend you’re a science fiction writer.”

Clay: Okay: “World government…no cancer…hover-boards.”
“Go further. What’s the good future after that?”
“Spaceships. Party on Mars.”
“Star Trek. Transporters. You can go anywhere.”

I pause a moment and then realize. “I can’t.”

Kat shakes her head. “It’s really hard. And that’s, what, a thousand years? What comes after that? What could possibly come after that? Imagination runs out. But it makes sense right? We probably just imagine things based on what we already know, and we run out of analogies in the thirty-first century.”

Ok, we got a little sidetracked on the sci-fi angle here. It was honestly the hover-boards that pulled me in as I would love to ride one. But let’s just imagine even 20 years into the future.

If we can imagine taking one leap, and thinking of that as something that already exists, then we can build from there. Suppose in the 1980s, we had imagined (and I suppose some people did) that everyone would be online all the time by the next century. What could we have imagined from there? Could we have realized mobile devices were going to be as prevalent as they are today?

The point is that once you go forward 10 or 15 years and realize that one assumption might come true, you can look for the next one. And then nothing seems unrealistic anymore. But if you try and skip from where we are now to something like 50 years later, it becomes more difficult. What would be easier to imagine first back in the 1950s? Having a dial-up Internet connection, or everyone having mobiles that they would carry with them that would have access to the Internet?

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Contemplating a Communication Shift Along a Rural Road Outside Arusha, Tanzania

Images depicting an African village on a tapestry.

Images on a tapestry depicting an African village.

It was August 2008, and I was on a rickety bus somewhere outside Arusha, Tanzania. Much to my chagrin, I had had to take a seat toward the back of this bus. Thankfully, I was well-loaded up on drugs from being very ill with some form of parasite or amoeba after having summited Mt. Kilmanjaro. Otherwise I would have probably been more worried about my horrendous motion sickness, especially in the back.

The drugs did not prevent me from waking up screaming at one point, although I did go back to sleep immediately (and yes, for some reason I do remember this, although it was also confirmed by my friend traveling with me). However, I survived, and we eventually made our destination Zanzibar. And any way, I want to write about a far more interesting story.

How Does This Relate to Communication?

I want to tell you about the small villages that we drove past in this rural area. From the bus, I had a view of mostly desolate dry land and every so often a few homes clumped together and then sparseness again. Sometimes I saw people and animals; sometimes gardens and children.

A rural village in Tanzania.

A rural village in Tanzania.

In my head, I wrote a story, a story of how a mobile communications company, Vodapod (before, you ask, I don’t remember how I picked that name), changed the lives of people in one of these small villages. Representatives from the company researched the traffic patterns on the larger roads in the area while searching for a prominent place to put a sign advertising Vodapod (yes, one of those horrible highway signs that dirty up the landscape).

After long negotiations for the perfect spot, they agreed to pay, what was for them, a small sum to the village yearly. Plus they also gave away mobile phones and contracts to the villagers. This money, but also this form of being connected to the world, changed life in that village. It also changed that village’s relationship with other villages.

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