Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof
It appears to be a near-universal assumption by science fiction writers, directors, and producers, that there exists a set of precipitating events leading to our complete abandonment of doorknob technology. Do you share this assumption? Would you be willing to speculate on the reason for this assumption, or on the nature of the developmental pathway? Do you foresee any significant downsides, should this eventuality come to pass?
I love this question.
And I have an answer for it, which is that for a while there, having magically sliding doorknobless doors was a cheap and easy way of showing that you were in THE FUTURE. Here in the crappy present, you had to open your own doors! Through physical effort and mechanical energy! But in the future they will slide open on their own. All you had to do was be there for the miracle. This is also why, incidentally, in the future, doors would also be replaced by irised portals. A door? Shaped like a rectangle? How quaint. Do you hand crank your car windows, too?
And this makes perfect sense for writing science fiction, in which part of the goal is to convince people that they are looking on events that happen in a future time, where even the most mundane things have been touched by the magical future wand of futureness. So that’s why you’ll never dirty a doorknob in the future. It’s also why you’ll drink synthahol and wear silvery tunics and whatnot.
In reality, which is generally more complex than (if not as procedurally coherent as) a science fiction film, we mix and match technology from different eras without thinking about it. For example, right now I am writing this sitting at my kitchen table. The table was constructed using wood and nails and glue, which makes it, I don’t know, let’s say 17th century technology. The chair I’m sitting in is the same. On the table is my laptop computer, which in this Mac Air iteration is pretty 21st Century, three books, including a hardcover book (the codex being a technology going back to the Romans, but this iteration has 20th century technology in it), two paperback books (also 20th century), a paper pamphlet (old tech) on which rests a remote ignition fob for my car (new, new tech), a ballpoint pen (19th century), and a single lens reflex camera (19th century, but portable versions are 20th century) with a digital imager (20th century, with this iteration of it being 21st century). I’m drinking Coca-Cola (19th Century) in its Coke Zero variant (21st century), from a soda can (20th century), and eating a banana, specifically a Cavendish cultivar (19th century — and yes, the creation of the Cavendish is technology, of an agricultural sort).
The doorknob, incidentally, is a surprisingly recent technology, dating to the 18th century.
We mix and match the tech because a) our lives are not being written for the amusement of readers, b) technology that “works” tends to stick around. Simple wooden chairs and tables are likely to exist 400 years from now because human physiology is not likely to change substantially, and people will still want a place to park their butts and put objects down on without having to set them on the floor, and not every chair and table will need to be made of space age miracle components. Likewise, here and now, if I really wanted to, I could replace every door in my house with a sliding door without a doorknobs — I could even get sliding doors that open without me having to touch them. But why would I? Doorknobby doors work just fine, the look just fine, they’re cheap and I don’t want to have to bother with replacing them.
I will note that my futures have doorknobs — Chapter Three of Fuzzy Nation clearly has Jack Holloway using one to open and close his door — because I think most people in the future will live like people live today: with a mix and match of technologies with an emphasis on the ones that work without fuss. Doorknobs, while not exactly the sexiest technology, are also pretty reliable, unfussy things. I think they’ll stay around.
Also, anecdotally, I think science fiction writers today are more inclined to keep doorknobs in their futures than writers of the past might have been, for a number of different reasons but mostly because I don’t think readers need to be informed that THIS STORY IS IN THE FUTURE as much as maybe they used to — or alternately, that they pick up the clues differently than they did before. This may not necessarily be the case with TV or film science fiction — I didn’t see a lot of doorknobs in the most recent Star Trek film — but visual science fiction is a different animal, perhaps.
Anyway. Doorknobs: Probably a future-proof technology. I’m treating it as such.
(It’s not too late to get questions in for this year’s Reader Request Week — add yours here).