Consumer Tech: Not Exactly a Flying Car

but it makes me a much happier person, and certainly more comfortable!

When we look at the future as envisioned by the pioneers of science fiction writing, or by “futurists” of the 1920s-50s, the extrapolations range from reasonable to odd to “maybe in a few more hundred years.” Instead of knee and hip replacements, we get entire body replacements (no, thanks, I’ve seen those episodes. And I shudder to think of the bloatware the hardware provider would insist on having pre-loaded.) People travel the stars while using slide rules to calculate. Or computers are still room-sized. We have elaborate underwater or lunar-surface habitats to enjoy. But in many cases the consumer tech is absent or seriously off kilter.

By consumer tech I’m actually thinking about the new things used in consumer goods, fabrics, dyes, finishes, and even some medical tech, as well as the more visible bits like iThings that range from music players to hand-held computers. Gore-Tex (TM) for example, makes my hiking boots more comfortable, ditto my heavy winter coat, which is not as heavy or bulky as my parents’ old parkas that I found in the back of a closet last year. Who wrote stories about artificial feathers? But we now have fake-down that is just as warm as the original, doesn’t trigger allergies, is less beloved of dust mites, and doesn’t lose all of its insulating properties when it gets wet. You can now buy shirts impregnated with jade that are great in hot, humid weather for keeping you cooler (and less smelly, depending on how long you are working and what you are doing.)

I love the “new” boiled wool and light-weight wools. They appeared around 1999, and I could not believe that the lovely, light, non-scratchy little jacket was really wool! It was, and is, and I still wear it. New ways to spin, weave, and process wool makes it softer, lighter for the warmth, and still very nice looking. I have more boiled wool and prefer it to some fleeces. And what about “fleece” anyway? Some of it now passes easily for high-end wool coats, but much lighter and machine washable. It is much easier to dress for cold weather, and you have many more options in terms of layering. For people allergic to wool or down, this is a near miracle. You can make it from pop-bottles, you can make it in endless colors and patterns, you can add wind-resistant membranes, it is soft to the touch, and as stretchy as desired. It does collect pet hair better than anything short of wool velvet, though, but you can toss fleece in the washer, or hose it off. I’m still not 100% sure of most “washable wools.”

The other area of amazing consumer comfort tech is, sorry guys, feminine hygiene products. I won’t go into details, but new absorbent materials, new kinds of woven or compressed coverings, and adhesives make life much more comfortable and convenient for the distaff side. I do not recall anything in science fiction about that sort of stuff, probably because 1) no one really wants to read or write about it and 2) that’s not what we think of when we think of ‘technology.’ But my world is a much better place thanks to the chemists and materials researchers at P&G, 3M, and other producers of absorbent stuff.

Along those lines, look at industrial clean-up materials. We’ve come a very long way from cat litter (bentonite clay) and sawdust. I love looking through their catalogue! Back when I worked at an airport, I spent way too much time marvelling at all the new ways to keep spills confined, or to sop up various liquids. Hey, I’m strange, OK? But that is something that again, we tend not to think about as high technology. Microbes that eat oil spills and decompose plastics? Those make the news on occasion, but not “socks” that absorb enormous amounts of water. After one foundation leak during the wet season, I came to have a very healthy respect for those socks from P.I.G. Saved me from replacing a lot of sheetrock and insulation. The carpet and pad were beyond help.

The water crystals I used to put in the potted plants were another marvel of consumer tech. I can’t find them anymore, but they came in packages and were small, translucent chunks of polymers. You mixed them into the potting soil, inserted the plant, and watered. Those little beggars expanded, holding water and then slowly releasing it. They are/were the perfect thing for plants in pots that get baked by the Panhandle sun. The plants stayed moist on less water, and it seemed to keep the soil cooler. I suspect they are related to the material in the bandanas and neck-pads that you get wet and they cool you off for an hour or so.

We don’t see a great deal of this kind of tech. We see iThings of various makes and models, we see the software (curse the software . . .), we see back-up cameras and GPS in cars. We don’t see the tiny mesh sleeves and metal coils radiologists can thread into arteries and veins to make repairs or prevent blow-outs, we don’t see the batteries and electrodes that make defibrillating pacemakers possible, or the new metal alloys and precision casting that have made artificial joints almost passe. New hip and knees? No problem, there are parts available and the procedures are well-tested and common. Complications still happen, but not all that long ago, hip replacement was experimental (20-25 years). They are not perfect, not yet, but they are improving rapidly.

We don’t have flying cars, or FTL travel, or colonies on Mars and Europa (yet.) But we live much happier, more comfortable, less expensive lives because of technology very few people wrote about 50 years ago. “What if you tried . . .” and “Why can’t we make a fabric that . . .” and “It’s not a great glue, but what if we put it on little pieces of paper for temporary place markers?” are all ways technology advances: not space rockets or CorningWare dishes, but advances even so.


5 thoughts on “Consumer Tech: Not Exactly a Flying Car

  1. My paternal grandmother had one doctor tell her not to waste time with a hip replacement (late 1970’s/early 1980’s) due to her age. She found a different doctor – and made it to 2004.

    And I’ve been annoyed that pyrex ain’t PYREX anymore and I have to get imported borosilicate bakeware to get what I want – stuff that won’t shatter in the oven.

    • Yup. After the medical malpractice lawyers did in Dow-Corning so that it broke up into a variety of bits and pieces, a lot of their products never recovered. I haunt garage sales for the old CorningWare and PYREX. (Sign of age, if hearing the Pink Panther theme and the phrase “Think Pink” invokes Dow Corning pink fiberglass insulation and not a current charitable cause.)

  2. “Sign of age, if hearing the Pink Panther theme and the phrase “Think Pink” invokes Dow Corning pink fiberglass insulation…”

    Aah, arguably Mr. Mancini’s best known piece. (but only because most people don’t know who did Baby Elephant Walk, or the Love Theme from “Romeo and Juliet”)

    Heh, in my case I think of the insulation and the cartoon.

    • “Heh, in my case I think of the insulation and the cartoon.”

      Me three.

      Apparently I haven’t been around any of the new Pyrex, because to me Pyrex is synonymous with glass cookware; glass dishes you can put in the oven or even use to cook over the open flame of a campstove.*

      Maybe we can blame the loss of real Pyrex on the same people that caused us to be unable to get OTC cold pills that work. After all they often use Pyrex in the cooking of meth (the glass doesn’t cause unwanted chemical reactions like any metal utensils does) so I wouldn’t be surprised if the government in its infinite wisdom decided taking “real” Pyrex off the shelves would take drugs off the streets.

      *Probably not recommended, but something I did in my younger days and never had a problem

      • Or it could be something like what happened to Electrolux. There are electrolux vacuum cleaners out there, but they are _nothing_ like the ones my mother had. The one I inherited is from the mid 80’s and still works. The power head is kinda flaky at times, but the main unit is a work-horse.

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