My Life As A Science Fiction Plumber

None of this is any thrilling insight, or anything that’s not been said before by smarter folk than I, it’s just something that amused me this morning.

A significant part of my job is providing estimates. I break down what the client is asking for, suck air in through my teeth, and mutter “well, we can do that, but it’ll cost…”.

Complicating matters is that fact that with a coding-type job of any complexity/size, 90% of the time, I’m being asked “this thing you haven’t ever done before, how long will it take to do?”. Because if I’d done it before, the code would be around to re-use and the cost would low.

What constantly amuses (or frustrates) me, though, is non-technical people’s expectations of these costs. 90% of the time, I provide a quote and the response is “but it’s just doing X”. The idea that if something is simple to say, it must be simple to do is almost never true. But about 10% of the time (and it’s this 10% that makes my job worth it), someone comes to me and says “look, I know this is probably really expensive, but could we do X?” and I get to say “mate, I can do that for you in ten minutes, let me just sort that out for you now”.

It amuses me that the expectations gap cuts both ways.

This occurred to me this morning in a science fiction context, as my Apple TV screensaver kicked in, and I saw a beautiful ariel shot of dawn over New York, and I thought of a line in Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, wherein he imagines a technology he called a “Wander Window”. Essentially, an apartment window that instead of showing the world immediately outside, showed beautiful views from around the world. In the fiction, a delivery man sees it, adn remarks on it as a highly expensive luxury item, saying something like “It’d creep me out, living somewhere this rich.”

My TV is now my wander window, and today, some version of this is a pretty trivial technology that’s baked into TV products pretty much as standard. My parents have it. When building these things, it’s the ten-minute job, rather than the “ooh, it’ll cost you…” job. And what’s interesting to me is that there was never really a time when putting a screensaver in a TV was an expensive job. As soon as it became possible to do it, it was (relatively) easy.

And of course this isn’t really about the fallibility of science fiction predictions (I mean, Warren was actually bang on with his tech prediction there), or the difficulties of estimating.

I find myself wondering what other science fiction technologies, when they get here, will be the ten minute job. What is there that, by the time we can do it, is going to be much easier to do than we think? Are we going to find that by the time we can send someone to Mars, that terraforming it will be trivial? What challenges are easier than we expect?

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