It’s January so, like a cormorant migrating to hotter climes, it’s time for me to make my annual pilgrimage to the educational technology exhibition known as the BETT Show. I’ve visited almost every year of the last fifteen, and each visit it amazes how the highlight is something completely unexpected.
The show is huge and only expands every year, but there are three things that remain consistent:
- Ninety-percent of the stuff is the same thing you saw last year;
- The other ten consists of genuinely new and exciting technology developments;
- Something always happens which slaps me out of my comfort zone and forces me to communicate with human beings.
…and this year was no different.
This year’s highlight was the moment I found myself standing next to the DeLorean from Back to the Future. It was thrilling to see such an iconic vehicle up close; I looked around it, sat in the driver’s seat, and pressed those iconic buttons. I wanted for just a moment to imagine that I was Marty McFly travelling at 88 miles per hours and about to take a trip into the future. But instead, I ended up trying to convince a lovely old Chinese man that this wasn’t a British experimental electric vehicle, but was, in fact, a film prop from a classic 1980’s American movie.
I’m not entirely sure how the conversation started. I imagine the same situation might occur if you found yourself in a minor car accident and were forced through circumstance into comparing notes with an eyewitness. We were both so stunned to be so close to this strange vehicle that instinctively we both locked eyes and had to converse just to break the awkward tension. It quickly became clear, however, that his English vocabulary was limited, and that he thought this was a real car, the pinnacle of British vehicular engineering. I know the DeLorean was actually manufactured, but he thought this was some sort of experimental prototype being tested for roadworthiness.
I tried to explain but the language barrier made it difficult for us to communicate. Eventually, I resorted to ungracefully jabbing at the Back to the Future logo and saying “film” but he clearly wasn’t familiar with Michael J. Fox’s finest work.
After recovering from my social anxiety about the entire situation, and feeling appalled at my limited linguistic skills, it occurred to me how much I take my own culture for granted. Now, admittedly, corny 1980s American films aren’t exactly Martin Luthor King, or the end of apartheid, or the moon landings, but they’re still an important cultural milestone for many people.
The image of the DeLorean is so culturally potent that it was able to sell tickets to the awful, awful film based on the appaling travesty of a book, Ready Player One. Affiliate link. And yet, this excited man, interested in this car, thrilled by its unique design and faux technology, didn’t have any clue of its origin. In his path through life, he’d never been close to this touchstone of popular culture.
Of course, the opposite will also be true. And now feel obligated to visit China.