Stepping Back: The Strange Pace of Change

Stepping Back: The Strange Pace of Change

August 4th, 2007 | Posted in Art & Society, Asides

As a futurist, I’m usually watching the leading edge of change: new user interfaces, new ideas, new products. But a futurist also has to think about the way the past impacts the future. About the way living history keeps the future coming a little slower.

This past week, six of us took the Coast Starlight train up and down the west coast from Seattle to San Louis Obispo and back to attend a double ceremony for my parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary and my son’s recent wedding (7-7-07).

We had rooms in the sleeper cars. Everyone in our car – both directions – was white or Asian. The stewards were black men with skin so dark that at night you saw their clothes and their teeth and the whites of their eyes. The older white women (I guess some were in their nineties) dressed in long dresses and layers of fresh makeup to eat in the dining car. Except for the occasional glimpse of a laptop or dig-e-player (free to sleeper passengers) behind the swinging blue curtains of the rooms, our part of the train was nearly electronics-free. We played cards with physical decks in the parlor car. People talked with perfect strangers.

No one searched us getting on or off or asked us where we’d left our luggage lately. We carried on water bottles and shampoo and kept our shoes tightly laced to our feet.

I felt like we has stepped into the fifties. The furniture and the setting and even the clacking of the wheels and the high sharp sound of the horn contributed to the sense of something long and old and long lost — even partly well lost, like the sense of separation between races which I hope was accidental. I kept wanting to sing Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans.”

It’s a good thing to remember the things that stay the same when thinking about the future. Maybe it won’t be Amtrak, which is threatened on the budget chopping block every year, but it will be people and families and the basic things that drive us. It will be love and the desire for adventure and the curiosity of the many. Maybe it will even be sitting at a table and playing with real cards.

Brenda Cooper

About Brenda Cooper

Brenda Cooper is a writer, a technology professional, and a futurist. Brenda writes science fiction, fantasy, poetry, and non-fiction. Two of her novels, The Silver Ship and the Sea and Edge of Dark, have won the Endeavour Award for the best science fiction or fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author. Wilders was also short-listed for the P.K. Dick award. She is also currently the Director of Information Technology at Lease Crutcher Lewis, a premier Pacific Northwest builder. Her love of technology, science, and science fiction combines to drive her interest in the future, and she delivers keynote addresses in the future a few times a year.


  1. Kaspersky review   |   Dec 15, 2010

    The pc is the primary metamedium, and as such it has levels of freedom for representation and expression never earlier than encountered and as but barely investigated. – Alan Kay

  2. Wedding Cars   |   Oct 29, 2007

    For a trip through time perhaps you should go to China. I remember reading of a relatively recent trip there where the writer (PJ O’Rourke, maybe?) waxed eloquent on how it was like in the cities it’s the steel and chrome future, in the environs it’s like going back in time about fifty years or so, and you go further back through time the further away you travel from the cities, till you come to where people (seriously) are still living in caves. It’s a journey I’d really like to make for myself some day.


  3. Glen Hiemstra   |   Aug 6, 2007


    Weirdly anachronistic trip in the race-based roles, as if you were a cast in a period movie.

    I just finished “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” by Bill Bryson, about growing up in 1950’s-1960’s USA. This is a great read for anyone younger than 50 or so, and especially for those under 30, who want to understand how much things have changed. (For those who lived it, it is a walk down memory lane, and a sad one at that when you realize all the individuality that has been lost.)

    William Irwin Thompson, the cultural historian and futurist, wrote years ago in “Darkness and Scattered Light” that the past never disappears completely as the cycle of the future turns, rather it is preserved in miniaturized form, which I think is what you experienced.