2481: 1991 and 2021

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1991 and 2021
"Oh, and our computers all have cameras now, which is nice during the pandemic lockdowns." "The WHAT."
Title text: "Oh, and our computers all have cameras now, which is nice during the pandemic lockdowns." "The WHAT."


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This comic shows a Cueball from 2021 who is once again discussing the future's technology with White Hat, this time in 1991 instead of 2010. White Hat is awed by the advances in technology, but is not expecting that the law combating laser attacks on passenger aircraft is not the most important thing mentioned.

"Laser attacks on airliners" sounds dramatic and important, and White Hat probably thinks that laser weapons have been developed and have been used to attack aircraft. Given that "a [US] federal law" has been passed to combat such attacks, White Hat may be envisioning a future where US citizens have access to laser guns, and some reckless individuals have been firing them at airplanes. (If it were some other group like terrorists or foreign militaries, a federal law would be unlikely to dissuade them.)

In reality, the "lasers" in question are low-powered laser pointers, which some people aim at passenger airliners as a (dangerous) prank. When the beam hits the airplane, it cannot damage the plane itself, much less shoot it from the sky;[citation needed] it can, however, blind the pilot, which poses a threat to them and their passengers. A law (18 USC §39A) was thus passed in 2012 to criminalize this.

The robot fighting TV shows mentioned include BattleBots, Robot Wars, and MegaBots, the earliest of which started in 1998. In them, machines armed with a variety of weapons fight in an arena. These are not technically robots or drones in the traditional sense of operating autonomously; for the most part, they are either remote controlled or piloted by humans, and have only rudimentary on board computer systems. They are certainly not controlled by AI. Also, while these shows have been popular enough to return to the air after periods of hiatus, they are not nearly as popular as sports involving humans.

In this comic, "cordless phone" may be meant literally, meaning any wireless phone without a cord. That's distinct from common parlance where "cordless phone" is distinct from a cellular phone, and is a wireless extension of a landline, typically of limited range, i.e. within a home. It seems likely that Cueball was using a term he believed a 1991 citizen would more easily relate to. Although cell phones had been in use for over a decade by 1991, they were most commonly depicted as a foible of a stereotypical "businessman", typically accompanied by displays of distraction, classism, & self-importance. The term "cell phone" was at that time frequently used to refer to older analog cellular networks, with many mobile users proud of their new CDMA or GSM "digital" phones, as distinct from true "cellular" systems which have been deprecated since that time (this distinction has since disappeared from common usage). A more general term used in modern parlance, such as "mobile phone" or "wireless phone" may have been less recognizable to the average person in 1991. Describing a cell phone as "a cordless phone [where you can] send news stories to your friends" would be a reasonable way of describing a cell phone to a person of that era.

Additionally, cellular phones today do not have much longer range than cellular phones of 1991 (in fact most have less range, due to their lower transmission power & use of higher frequencies, as well as indirectly due to increasing crowding on most wireless frequencies). Cordless phones reliant on a land-line, may exhibit somewhat longer range than they did in 1991, due to improvements in digital error correction & audio compression, although the effective range of a single transmission at a given power & frequency would otherwise be reduced by interference from the proliferation of other wireless devices outside functional range &\or operating independently. Satellite phones also offer more terrestrial range than cellular or cordless landline phones, however their functional range has not greatly increased since 1991 either (being already sufficient to reach a satellite within line-of-sight above). A possible explanation for a perceived "longer range" is that cellular phone towers are much more omnipresent than in 1991, granting cellular devices much greater functional area even though their functional range from one tower is typically less than in 1991.

Sharing on social media has distorted what news stories people encounter. Instead of a curated selection of important[citation needed] news fact-checked by a newspaper or tv/radio broadcast from a large corporate media conglomerate, we see only what people similar to us found interesting.

By most reasonable measures, the most important technologies on the list could be seen as the rise of mobile phones, and the ability to easily share news stories (aside of course, from any perceived advent of high-powered laser weapons or televised robotic warfare). The first of these, mobile phone usage (& smartphones in particular) has led to a dramatic change in how people communicate, with a large amount of communication now remote, which was not as convenient in the 90s (requiring, for example, setting up roaming at the carrier's office before taking the phone to another city) and impossible for most people a few decades prior: Low frequency wireless for personal communication was relatively uncommon in the early '90s & remains so today. Sharing of news stories person-to-person is partly blamed for the spread of fake news; misinformation has become more and more politically, legally, & socially significant in the past few years. While wireless communication has certainly had enormous & wide-ranging effects, the factuality of the data communicated is arguably of greater importance than the means of its communication. The joke is that the impact of a technology on society isn't really about how exciting or dangerous it might look at first glance.

The title text horrifies 90s White Hat, as it not only refers to a pandemic serious enough to induce lockdowns, but mentions it casually, in reference to the existence of computer webcams. COVID-19 is already a hugely impactful deadly disease, but by mentioning it without details, it leaves White Hat to guess as to the details. Cueball doesn't specify whether there have been one or more pandemics (the plural use of 'lockdowns' could be taken to imply that there were more than one), or how serious they were, how long-lasting, or how many lives were lost to them. In consequence, White Hat could easily be assuming a dystopian future even worse than what really happened.


On release, the title text was not actually included as such. It was instead included as the text of a "see also" link, which is often invisible to readers and is activated by clicking the comic. Such links have been used in the past for larger versions of the comic or for related information on other sites. Here, it linked back to the comic itself, and was evidently a mistake.


[Cueball (with an aura) is talking to White Hat.]
White Hat: Welcome to 1991!
White Hat: So you're from 2021? What happens with technology over the next 30 years?
[Same scene, except Cueball has his palm out.]
Cueball: We passed a federal law to combat laser attacks on airliners, and there are TV shows where robots battle.
Cueball: Also, cordless phones are longer range now, and it's really easy to send news stories to your friends.
White Hat: Wow, okay.
[Same scene.]
Cueball: Now, try to guess which of those things turn out to be important.
White Hat: ...is it not the lasers?
Cueball: It is not the lasers.

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It's 7:12p and I'm on android at m.xkcd.com . There is no alt text, and the "see also" link directs back to the same page. The comic is fun though, people will be thinking about time travel as technology takes off. 23:14, 25 June 2021 (UTC)

There is no title-text on firefox on PC either. 23:16, 25 June 2021 (UTC)
The title text is botched. Instead the comic is wrapped in an a (hyperlink) element: <a href=""Oh, and our computers all have cameras now, which is nice during the pandemic lockdowns." "The WHAT."">. 23:24, 25 June 2021 (UTC)
I reckon the backend interface for posting a comic must have a field for the title text and a field for the "see also" link, and someone put the text in the wrong field. Easy mistake to make, hopefully fixed soon. -- Peregrine (talk) 02:33, 26 June 2021 (UTC)

Wasn't the federal no lasers pointed at airplanes law was in acted to prevent laser guided missile attacks against airlines? Not laser attacks in general? 01:24, 26 June 2021 (UTC)

Sure, someone may have suggested that, but the truth is that anyone who has access to guided missiles (IE state-level actors and military forces) isn't going to be bound by federal law anyway Defaultdotxbe (talk) 02:37, 26 June 2021 (UTC)
My thoughts too. At first I took it as White Hat thinking that there were military attacks with lasers capable of shooting down planes… but a federal law against that would, as you say, not be heeded by those doing such things. On reflection I decided that White Hat is envisioning that ordinary citizens have laser guns and have taken to shooting them at planes, the way road signs get shot at by ordinary guns in reality. -- Peregrine (talk) 02:46, 26 June 2021 (UTC)
In short, no. 18 USC §39A, the federal law criminalizing the pointing of laser pointers at airplanes, was not enacted to prevent missile attacks against airlines. It was enacted to help combat kids (and others) causing real injury to airline personnel in what they thought were harmless pranks (they're not harmless). JohnHawkinson (talk) 03:46, 26 June 2021 (UTC)
Yeah, having and trying to use anti-aircraft guided missiles was already plenty illegal without there needing to be a new law about the laser guidance part. In any case, the other guy is misunderstanding the implications of the situation with how it's described, whether or not he thought through that whatever means are being used it should already be illegal to shoot down airplanes.-- 23:43, 29 June 2021 (UTC)

It's interesting that Mr. 2021 summarizes the entire Internet/World Wide Web with "it's really easy to send news stories to your friends". The Internet certainly existed in 1991, but the advancement in that area over 30 years is pretty significant. I'm not sure how I would sum that up to someone from 30 years ago in a single comic panel, but I think it would come out differently than what we see here. Orion205 (talk) 03:57, 26 June 2021 (UTC)

I saw the ratio of advertisements with www.foo.com in it rise only at the end of the 90s which was when the Internet started to get mainstream adoption. Before Google, it was not so easy to find relevant content with Altavista and friends. Bmwiedemann (talk) 20:31, 26 June 2021 (UTC)
Don't confuse the Internet with the Web, though. With searchable access to alt.your.fetish.or.hobby on a usenet feed, a curated FAQ (or general conversation) could make you aware of ftp.hobbyfetish.org.au, or whatever wherewithall you needed to telnet directly to the FetishHobbyBBS. Or vice-versa if you'd started on a FIDONet connection. (Then there was the AOL Keyword approach, where you had such an ISP with such a USP and an acceptably obvious hobby/fetish.) Before Tim Berners-Lee (and whoever did Gopher, etc), plus the time needed to get into your prefered era of AskVistaGoogleDuck, the connectivity was there - just a little less automated and only hugely beyond a single person actually knowing everything they could connect to, rather than totally mind-blowingly so... 00:05, 28 June 2021 (UTC)
Also, Google never offered great improvement over the ease of search on AltaVista; Google's "improved" search rankings were a result of other user's click-thrus & promotion, notably not any enhancement of the existing search terms. As a result, Google made it easier to find the sites most commonly accessed through its search gateway, while pushing obscure resources toward the bottom of any search results. After establishing market dominance in web searches, Google then phased out adherence to strict search terms, making it noticeably harder to find any sites their algorithms do not promote. (They also bought YouTube & then removed a great deal of the independently produced videos which had made the site popular, when "content controls" & the first implementation of their overzealous automated filtering, were brought online.) Google has always been more about promotion than accurate search, & it's reflected in the way they've consistently absorbed new technologies only to shutter them in favor of newer, less functionally-complete projects, which superficially offer more appearance of novelty. Google is to telecommunication today, as General Motors was to transportation in the '00s: An industry giant hindering meaningful innovation by marketing old as new, new as exclusive, & restricted as improved. Rather similar to Apple & MS, actually? (The extent to which "free thing that worked fine if you knew how" becomes "more limited but monetized thing deprecated by another monetized thing until none of them offer what you came for anymore", is truly astounding to me. Feels like telecom was better in '05, for anyone who doesn't want to spend hundreds a month in '21.) Google deserves credit for innovating search in the same way Apple deserves credit for innovating smartphones: They don't. Neither company is great at innovating; they are great at marketing old as new.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 17:43, 28 June 2021 (UTC)

It's not so much the range of cordless phones that is of significant change, but the computing power inside the phone that made the most advancement since 1991. Phones at that time could only make phone calls! Texting didn't become available until 1992 and games and everything else we do on them was later. To me "range" means the connection range which improved a lot, but is still not as signficant as "range of use" Rtanenbaum (talk) 12:17, 26 June 2021 (UTC)

Does "cordless phones" refer to cellphones? That's the "wireless" industry. Cordless phones are landline phone handsets that don't have a cord connecting them to the wall, and he's talking about the distance they can be from the base station. Mentioning these is a joke because so many people have cut the cord entirely, abandoning their landlines in favor of just using cellphones. Barmar (talk) 12:59, 26 June 2021 (UTC)
A cordless phone will lose signal if you walk 20 feet outside of your house, giving it "limited range" compared to a cell phone. 22:16, 6 July 2021 (UTC)
That's what I wondered too. I would assume the comic is referring to cordless phones in the sense of landline phone handsets, not cellphones, if just because the coverage range of these phones has increased, whereas the opposite is true for cellphones. With 2G, you can get coverage up to 35km from the base station, whereas with 4G this is reduced to about 16km. There is effectively more cellphone coverage nowadays because there are more base stations, not because the coverage works at longer range. Zoid42 (talk) 02:28, 27 June 2021 (UTC)
I agree, & the assertion that cellphones have increased in range since '91 would be amusing, if it weren't so incorrect as to represent harmful disinformation. (Ironic, given the topic...) I have edited the explanation to make the situation clearer, but that paragraph is now overly long & contains several run-on sentences: The explanation would read better if split into coherent sections for each of the four changes Cueball described.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 17:56, 27 June 2021 (UTC)
The computing power inside the phone would definitely sound significant in 1992 ; I suspect it would be comparable to top supercomputers of that time. -- Hkmaly (talk) 00:10, 27 June 2021 (UTC)
It indeed seems that we're seeing 100s of GigaFLOPS in both those supercomputers and these smartphones. Possibly more, as I couldn't easily find mobiles from the last half decade referenced in those terms of measure. And, when it does, it refers to the GPU, which makes for a very highly specialised architecture to render (e.g.) game environments via 3D elements, unlike supercomputers that... hmmm, often had a very highly specialised architecture to process (e.g.) weather predictions via 3D elements. ;)
Still hard to compare (is it easier to efficiently re-task arbitrary GPUs for things like, say, cryptofarming than it would for a weather-service machine to be re-applied to non-weather computing?) and of course other metrics such as data storage have been Moore's Lawed as well, by a combination of higher quantity, lower cost and increased availability (never mind pocket-portability) even before we start to get to near infinite swappable tape-storage now being approximated by virtually unlimited remote cloud storage (which could ultimately and opaquely still be as crude as tape-storage, but probably is disc-farms).
It would be interesting to go beyond the few brief glances I made at the details and actually with the various conversion factors that relate what we had in the early '90s (when something like a 486 DX2 66Mhz was the height of personal computing power, for me, at least until DX4 100s became available - and a HD 3.5" FDD wasn't always a given...)

This is the second time Cueball travels from within the Covid-19 pandemic to visit White Hat 2280. Is there any comic where White Hat interacts with pangolins, bats, or China? Even though Cueball is vaccinated by now, he might be a carrier Ruffy314 (talk) 22:46, 26 June 2021 (UTC)

That field around Cueball might mean he's not physically here ; maybe it's not possible to transfer matter into past, just information. -- Hkmaly (talk) 00:10, 27 June 2021 (UTC)
Black Hat: "Here wear this shirt when you project back."
Cueball: 'Why? What does it say above that big block of code?'
Black Hat: "'Reproduce this RNA sequence for a cool surprise!'"
ProphetZarquon (talk) 17:56, 27 June 2021 (UTC)

I disagree with the assertion added by (talk):

'A moment of thought would make it clear that the "laser attack" is unlikely to damage the plane directly, because if it did, no new law would be needed.'

Something being criminal under an existing law does not mean no new law is needed or will be passed. Maybe the existing penalty wasn't deemed sufficient. Maybe the law had loopholes not foreseen until the new technology appeared. Or maybe Congress just wanted to be seen to be doing something. There are many reasons why new laws can and have been passed to combat (the comic's word) something that's already not legal. Does anyone have thoughts to add? -- Peregrine (talk) 10:45, 28 June 2021 (UTC)

I agree, that addition should be removed. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 11:03, 28 June 2021 (UTC)
I'd like to add that the law Cueball references is only supposed to "combat" laser attacks, not necessarily outlaw them. I interpret this in the same way that one might outlaw firearms in order to "combat" mass shootings, or legislating TSA checks to "combat" bombings - both of which are already very illegal. So in Whitehats imagination, a law passed to "combat laser attacks on airliners" might be something like background checks on lasgun owners (deemed necessary because of frequent attacks). This law would be (arguagbly) "needed", even though the attacks themselves are already illegal. 12:25, 28 June 2021 (UTC)

<message deleted; sorry about that> 15:27, 28 June 2021 (UTC)

I really think Randall should've made some kind of remark about Sonic getting a fully orchestrated symphony. -- 16:20, 28 June 2021 (UTC)

I hope Randall won't be backsliding into another prolonged serious of COVID-19 comics ad nauseum. Just saying.

Too late!
Yeah, describing the difference as being the "range on cordless phones" is way off any way you think about it. The first cell phones on the market were in the early 70's, though the first ones were big and heavy, like a suitcase, so people would keep them in a car (thus the term "car phones"), and the first handheld ones were in the 80's. By the time of this, things like this had been on the market for a couple of years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motorola_MicroTAC In fact, 1991 was when the first 2G cell network was introduced, and SMS text messaging started the following year. Thus though a much larger portion of the population didn't own one at the time, cell phones were already a thing for this past guy's known technology, so the differences were all in the many things they could now do besides simple phone calls, not the range (though I guess a much smaller portion of places are now outside coverage of cell networks, but that's not the important part here.)-- 23:43, 29 June 2021 (UTC)

When I first read "The robot fighting TV shows mentioned include BattleBots, Robot Wars, and MegaBots, the earliest of which started in 1998", the other day, I was surprised. 1998 seemed a little late. But the wikilinks said 1998 for Robot Wars, so... ...however, I've just found (without looking for it, or even knowing I still had it to find!) a VHS tape in the back of a cupboard labelled "American Robot Wars Final 1996 [Highlights - Approx. 8 Minutes]", which seems to be a highlight video I will have received as a member of the Robot Wars club (here in the UK) with an order form to buy the full-length video (£12.99, +65p P&Pfor club members), which definitely tallies more with my memories of watching RW (and joining their club) a handful of years earlier.. Now.. ..where do I have a working VHS player? Anyway, FYI. 17:11, 1 July 2021 (UTC) - Addendum: Also there was another similarly packaged video nearby called "[The] History Of The Third Wars (18 Mins)" with slip "With compliments from the House Robots" and cartoon depictions of Matilda and ¿Sgt Bash?, so probably pushes it back even closer to my recollections of when it all kicked off. Also suggests I should have a good tidy up.