June 27, 2012
In 1987, Bill Gates became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, making the Forbes 400 Richest People in America list with a net worth of $1.25 billion, up from a measly $900 million the year before. Gates was just 32 years old and Microsoft Windows was still very much in its infancy, the operating system having been introduced just a couple of years earlier in November 1985. The world of 1987 was an exciting one for Gates and he saw even more exciting things ahead.
The January 1987 issue of OMNI magazine featured predictions from 14 “great minds” about what the future held; specifically the world of 20 years hence. Bill Gates predicted that the world of 2007 would be filled with flat panel displays, diverse forms of interactive entertainment, highly advanced voice recognition software and the ability to access vast quantities of information at the touch of a button — this was a capital I, capital A, Information Age.
Gates explains the typical home of 2007:
You’re sitting at home. You have a variety of image libraries that will contain, say, all the world’s best art. You’ll also have very cheap, flat panel-display devices throughout your house that will provide resolution so good that viewing a projection will be like looking at an original oil painting. It will be that realistic.
And the information that is accessed with the help of these displays will seem limitless. His idea of a world database sounds quite familiar to the 1981 predictions of Neil Ardley that we looked at a few months back.
In 20 years the Information Age will be here, absolutely. The dream of having the world database at your fingertips will have become a reality. You’ll even be able to call up a video show and place yourself in it. Today, if you want to create an image on a screen — a beach with the sun and waves — you’ve got to take a picture of it. But in 20 years you’ll literally construct your own images and scenes. You will have stored very high-level representations of what the sun looks like or how the wind blows. If you want a certain movie star to be sitting on a beach, kind of being lazy, believe me, you’ll be able to do that. People are already doing these things.
Gates predicts the perfection of a technology that has been around for decades, but one that many people of 2012 might associate with the name Siri: voice recognition.
Also, we will have serious voice recognition. I expect to wake up and say, “Show me some nice Da Vinci stuff,” and my ceiling, a high-resolution display, will show me what I want to see—or call up any sort of music or video. The world will be online, and you will be able to simulate just about anything.
I would love to see an iPhone commercial where Zooey Deschanel or Samuel L. Jackson say “Siri, show me some nice Da Vinci stuff.”
Gates continues by explaining that you’ll be able to realistically simulate racing formula cars in Daytona but worries what it might mean when people no longer have any reason to leave the house.
There’s a scary question to all this: How necessary will it be to go to real places or do real things? I mean, in 20 years we will synthesize reality. We’ll do it super-realistically and in real time. The machine will check its database and think of some stories you might tell, songs you might sing, jokes you might not have heard before. Today we simply synthesize flight simulation.
Gates believed that all of our technological advancements would also mean the end of credit cards and checks — old technologies replaced by voice and fingerprint recognition.
A lot of things are going to vanish from our lives. There will be a machine that keys off of physiological traits, whether it’s voiceprint or fingerprint, so credit cards and checks — pretty flimsy deals anyway — have to go.
Gates also welcomed the death of what he calls “passive entertainment.”
I hope passive entertainment will disappear. People want to get involved. It will really start to change the quality of entertainment because it will be so individualized. If you like Bill Cosby, then there will be a digital description of Cosby, his mannerisms and appearance, and you will build your own show from that.
Later in the article Gates is cautious and believes that we may eventually test just how much information the human mind can take.
Probably all this progress will be pretty disruptive stuff. We’ll really find out what the human brain can do, but we’ll have serious problems about the purpose of it all. We’re going to find out how curious we are and how much stimulation we can take. There have been experiments in which a monkey can choose to ingest cocaine and the monkey keeps going to create some pretty intense experiences through synthesized video-audio. Do you think you’ll reach a point of satisfaction when you no longer have to try something new or make something better? Life is really going to change; your ability to access satisfying experiences will be so large.
Gates ends his article by explaining that he doesn’t think we can really extrapolate with much accuracy from the year 1987.
But in the next 20 years you won’t be able to extrapolate the rate of progress from any previous pattern or curve because the new chips, these local intelligences that can process information, will cause a warp in what it’s possible to do. The leap will be unique. I can’t think of any equivalent phenomenon in history.
I’d argue that the vast majority of Gates’ predictions are actually fairly accurate. Here in the year 2012 we’ve seen many of his ideas about the world of 2007 become a reality. But perhaps the most interesting prediction of the bunch is about interactive entertainment. It’s fascinating that the internet has given rise to a remix culture that values slightly different modes of interaction — from the creation of a new video itself right down to the comments — though they’re typically unsanctioned by the original artists and rights holders.
For the time being, it would seem that modern copyright law makes these forms of remix entertainment targets for litigation — despite many obvious examples of fair use. And it’s not just remix culture, but the right to parody itself that has been under attack with the rise of the internet. An animated parody show about Bill Cosby himself, called House of Cosbys received a cease and desist letter in 2005 for even daring to imitate Bill Cosby’s voice and likeness. And if you’ve ever seen House of Cosbys you can probably attest that it’s likely not what Bill Gates had in mind when he was picturing the future.
Image above is a screenshot from this video:
June 26, 2012
It’s hard to imagine a world before the ubiquitous security camera. In major cities around the world, it’s just expected that we’re all being photographed maybe dozens of times a day.
The CCTV camera has permeated popular culture and is an icon frequently used by artists who are concerned with the rise of the surveillance state. But its predominant image as the Orwellian eye in the sky wasn’t always a given. Just as people were experimenting with the potential uses of broadcast TV in the 1930s, so too were people envisioning different ways to utilize closed-circuit television in the 1950s.
And with the emergence of color television technologies in the early 1950s, the opportunities were even more expansive; CCTV might be used as a way to teach doctors-in-training or sell brightly colored dresses in a shop window while it’s modeled from inside the store.
The January 1951 issue of Radio-Electronics magazine explained how people of the future might put color CCTV to use. The battle over color broadcast TV that the article mentions was an early format war between three different companies looking for FCC approval. CBS had a field-sequential system, Color Television Incorporated (CTI) had a line-sequential system, and RCA had a dot-sequential system. In 1950, the CBS system was the front-runner but it was ultimately abandoned in 1953 and an improved version of the RCA system became the standard.
While the battle over color television broadcasting rages, another type of color television has been taking over without fanfare or opposition. The field being conquered peacefully is industrial closed-circuit television. Already established in monochrome, it is finding color a valuable adjunct.
The term “industrial television” has been interpreted to mean roughly all non-entertainment uses of the new medium, including its employment at fashion shows and in banks. In a number of applications, industrial television supervises operations too dangerous for human beings. It makes possible certain types of advertising displays and saves manpower in work requiring observation at a number of separate points.
Possibly the most publicized application of closed-circuit color television is televising surgical operations. Since internes can learn operating techniques only by watching skilled surgeons, making the operation visible to larger numbers is important.
The idea of a live model showing off a dress through CCTV seems interesting. I’m not aware of any department stores that actually did this. If you are, please let me know in the comments. I’m sure someone must’ve tried this.
It seems banks are always on the forefront of new security technologies. Just as the first practical use of microfilm was by a banker in 1925, this article imagined that new optics would allow for the quick and convenient transmission of signatures in order to verify the authenticity of a check.
Today, the use of TV cameras to investigate mining disasters is commonplace. In 2010, the 33 trapped Chilean miners were seen by a TV camera mounted on a probe sent below.
Another common use for cameras today, which was predicted in this 1951 article, is for the monitoring of traffic. Below, traffic tunnels of the future are looked after by a lone man (with apparently 24 monitors).
And then there’s the infrared camera of the future which will allow you to keep your possessions safe, even in the dark.
Lastly, there is the “staring at gauges” use of CCTV. The article includes a lot of these kinds of illustrations, but I’ve only included one example below. You get the idea…
June 18, 2012
After Ellis Island was closed in November 1954, no one was quite sure what to do with it. The 27-acre government facility located in New York Harbor had stopped processing immigrants coming into the United States and no government entity was stepping up with a plan for the site. So in 1956 the U.S. government started soliciting bids for any private corporation or person that wanted to buy it.
As Vincent J. Cannato notes in his book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, there were a number of different proposals:
“…a clinic for alcoholics and drug addicts, a park, a “world trade center,” a modern and innovative “college of the future,” private apartments, homes for the elderly, and a shelter for juvenile delinquents. Other proposals were less realsitic. Bronx congressman Paul Fino suggested a national lottery center would be in keeping with the history of the island, since immigrants “gambled for a new life in this land of ours.”
But perhaps the most lavish idea came from the highest bidder, Sol G. Atlas. Mr. Atlas offered the government $201,000 and wanted to build a $55 million resort. According to the February 17, 1958 issue of the Monessen Valley Independent in Pennsylvania, “The plans call for a 600-room hotel, museum, language school, music center, swimming pool, convention hall, shops and a promenade. The island would also have a heliport, seaplane base and ferry slip.”
The government declined Mr. Atlas’ offer — they thought that the facility was worth at least $6 million — and Ellis Island sat dormant for years. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation that made Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, dashing once and for all any plans for a swanky resort. A museum about the history of immigration was opened at the site in 1990 and today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the National Park Service—even without swimming pools.
June 15, 2012
Before I moved to Los Angeles (almost 2 years ago now) I had never heard the word Googie. In fact, when a friend — a native Californian — used the term I initially thought it must have something to do with Google. I didn’t know the word, but I definitely knew the style. And I suspect you might too.
Googie is a modern (ultramodern, even) architectural style that helps us understand post-WWII American futurism — an era thought of as a “golden age” of futurist design for many here in the year 2012. It’s a style built on exaggeration; on dramatic angles; on plastic and steel and neon and wide-eyed technological optimism. It draws inspiration from Space Age ideals and rocketship dreams. We find Googie at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Space Needle in Seattle, the mid-century design of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, in Arthur Radebaugh‘s postwar illustrations, and in countless coffee shops and motels across the U.S.
Googie is an odd word; a funny word; a word that feels like it’s doing a few vowel-drenched laps around your tongue before finally flopping out of your mouth. Oddly enough, Googie was used as a deragatory term almost from the start — born in Southern California and named for a West Hollywood coffee shop designed in 1949 by John Lautner, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Architecture critic Douglas Haskell was the first to use “Googie” to describe the architectural movement, after driving by the West Hollywood coffee shop and finally feeling like he had found a name for this style that was flourishing in the postwar era.
But Haskell was no fan of Googie and wrote a scathing (by architecture critic standards) satire of the style in the February 1952 issue of House and Home magazine. The New York-based Haskell wrote part of his article, “Googie Architecture,” in the voice of a fictional Professor Thrugg, whose over-the-top praise was an indictment of Googie’s popular appeal. Haskell was an advocate of modernism, but a modernism constrained by his ideas of taste and refinement. Haskell, writing sarcastically as Professor Thrugg:
“You underestimate the seriousness of Googie. Think of it! — Googie is produced by architects, not by ambitious mechanics, and some of these architects starve for it. After all, they are working in Hollywood, and Hollywood has let them know what it expects of them.”
Haskell’s disdain for Googie was clearly rooted in his hatred for the flourishes and perceived tackiness of Hollywood.
Perhaps no one has studied Googie and its relationship to mid-20th century futurism more closely than Alan Hess: an architect, historian and the author of Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture (2004) and Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture (1985). I spoke with Mr. Hess by phone at his home in Irvine, California.
“Googie started after WWII as a definable style and it caught on fire in the culture and lasted for a good 25 years or so,” Hess says.
Googie is undeniably the super-aesthetic of 1950s and ’60s American retro-futurism — a time when America was flush with cash and ready to deliver the technological possibilities that had been promised during WWII. “I really feel that Googie made the future accessible to everyone,” Hess says. As he explains it, Googie was an unpretentious aesthetic meant to appeal to the average, middle-class American: ”One of the key things about Googie architecture was that it wasn’t custom houses for wealthy people — it was for coffee shops, gas stations, car washes, banks… the average buildings of everyday life that people of that period used and lived in. And it brought that spirit of the modern age to their daily lives.”
Hess insists that Googie was a realization of the future rather than simply a promise of things to come. “Since the 19th century and Jules Verne — coming up into the 1920s and 1930s — there had been these future-oriented movies and novels and so forth which looked to the future with great promise,” Hess says. “But after WWII, a lot of that promise was actually fulfilled not only in the buildings but also the automobiles that the average American used during that time. I really feel it did not only capture the future, but it brought it in a meaningful way to people. And you see this interest in these futuristic ideas not only in architecture or car design but in cartoons like The Jetsons and places like amusements parks like Disneyland’s Tomorrowland — in advertisements, in magazines, and so forth, certainly in the movies as well. So this interest, this intrigue, this appeal of living in the future just went all across the culture.”
Googie was born in southern California and much like the billboard scene here, owes some of its popularity to something very practical: driving in a car causes you to miss a lot of commercial activity. Which is to say, businesses want your attention, so they need to stand out through increased size and a certain degree of weirdness. As Philip Langdon notes in his 1986 book Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants, the laissez-faire expanse of California freeways contributed to the rise of Googie:
California, unlike eastern and midwestern states, did not build toll roads and make travelers captive to restaurants that had been commissioned to operate at designated rest stops. California was the land of the freeway, with the choice to eat at competing restaurants at one interchange after another, so the restaurants’ need for a conspicuous profile was especially intense. The question confronting restaurant operators by the late fifties was: What would catch the eye of fast-moving motorists?
Hess elaborates on the experimental spirit of postwar Los Angeles: “Yes, it really did start in Southern California, though it was a national phenomenon. Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, all of these areas also had Googie architecture. But Los Angeles — because it was one of the fastest growing cities at that time — had a tradition of experimental modern architecture. So the seeds of it were in Los Angeles.”
The 1962-63 version of The Jetsons was so dripping with Googie that you could argue Hanna-Barbera didn’t really exaggerate the style — they copied it. Googie at its most flamboyant and cartoonish is almost beyond parody. And it’s pretty clear that the artists behind The Jetsons were inspired by the style that surrounded them in Southern California.
The artists and animators working on The Jetsons really didn’t need to drive too far to become inspired by the Googie of Los Angeles. The Hanna-Barbera Studio was in Hollywood at 3400 Cahuenga Blvd (I think it’s the site of an LA Fitness now) and buildings all across Los Angeles in the late 1950s and early 1960s screamed Googie. The Los Angeles International Airport had (and still has) the Googie-tastic Theme Building, featured in the October 19 1962 issue of Life magazine — a special issue devoted completely to Americans’ mid-century fascination with California. Ship’s coffee shop opened in 1958 at 10877 Wilshire Blvd, just south of UCLA. Pann’s, my personal favorite breakfast spot in L.A. (try the biscuits and gravy, seriously), is at 6710 La Tijera Boulevard. Hanna-Barbera was also just a short drive from Anaheim, where you could see the Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland, which opened in 1957. And of course there was the streamlined, Space Age version of Disneyland’s early-’60s Tomorrowland.
The future had arrived for those in Southern California and it was a symbol of even greater things to come. From Hess’s 1985 book Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture:
Los Angeles in the 1950s was a modern city. The opportunities of the postwar boom in the freedom of Los Angeles allowed architects ranging from John Lautner to Richard Neutra full rein in a new phase of Modernism. The optimistic exploration of materials and structures for the new age continued. But as widely publicized as were Lautner’s Silvertop, or the series of Case Study houses sponsored by Arts and Architecture magazine, or other high art buildings, they were only a fraction of the architecture that filled tracts and lined commercial strips. The roadside buildings gave anyone driving Los Angeles streets the sense that this was indeed a new era, that the long-promised future of benevolent technology and prosperity had at last arrived to deliver the good life to all.
But by 1970, Hess says the architectural culture had changed. ”The interest in the future, the gee-whiz factor about plastics and nuclear power and space flight, travel to the moon, all of these things that had been new and exciting in the 1950s had become more mundane — we landed on the moon in 1969 and then it was over. And also at that time new ideas came in — specifically the ecology movement which began to say that we do have limits on how we can use our resources. And an interest in more lower-scale, residential, traditional, architecture came into fashion. You see this transition in tastes in popular culture I think most vividly in the change of the McDonald’s prototype. In 1953 the prototype was Googie all the way — it was bright, shiny, bold colors, big arches, very dynamic upswept roof, neon, etc…”
“But in the late-1960s,” Hess says, “McDonald’s introduced a new prototype which used brick as its walls and a mansard roof — a very traditional form. McDonald’s felt that it would appeal to their customers at this time, and it did. Those are some of the reasons why Googie eventually faded as a popular style. But then of course it’s ressurected as a popular style in the last 20 years or so.”
The style known as Googie, in fact, has many names. It’s sometimes known as Populuxe, and in some circles is just considered modern architecture. But it seems to me most fitting to call the style by the term used by its most famous detractor. Googie is both the future we long for and the future we never asked for.
So we tip our hats to the believers and non-believers alike — both Lautner and Haskell and all the other weirdos of the mid-20th century, jostling for their own vision of our American landscape. These beautiful, bizarre competing visions of our future — or our future that never was.
Update: A transcription error originally quoted Hess describing a “mansford” roof rather than a mansard roof.
Image credits in order of appearance:
- The Theme Building at LAX by Todd Lapin (2010)
- Googie’s Coffee Shop Menu from Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess
- Ship’s Coffee Shop from Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess
- Huddle’s Cloverfield from Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess
- Jetsons house taken as a screenshot from the DVD release
- Disneyland’s Monsanto House of the Future from the Library of Congress
- Pann’s Restaurant by Matt Novak (2011)
- Lyon’s Coffee Shop from Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess
- The two McDonald’s photos are from the Orange Roofs, Golden Arches by Philip Langdon
June 12, 2012
While the robot waiters of mid-’80s Pasadena were serving up chow mein at the Two Panda Deli in sunny California, another robot waiter 5,400 miles west was slinging spaghetti at Grazie’s Italian Restaurant in Tokyo.
Released in 1985 by the Japanese company Daimichi Koki with software designed by the Seibu Saison Group, Ken-chan was a 4-foot-tall robot waiter that buzzed around Grazie’s, helping most often with the wine selection. Ken-chan was supposedly guided by a radar senor that was intended to detect other objects around it and maneuver within the tight confines of a restaurant. However, the robo-waiter was far from autonomous, needing to be led around the restaurant by humans who used a remote control with a 12-foot cord.
Ken-chan couldn’t take orders or even set food on a table, but it did attract a crowd. Off the shelf, the metal server could utter just 15 different phrases in Japanese including “My name is Ken” and “How about dessert?”–but you could add the “Happy Birthday” song to its repertoire for an additional $425.
One of the restaurant’s managers, Kenichi Echiuya, first spotted the robot waiter at the 1985 World’s Fair in Tsukuba, Japan (known as Expo ’85). Ken-chan cost $43,000 (about $86,000, adjusted for inflation) and the early news stories about it were pretty glowing. An article in the September 12, 1985 issue of the military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo explained the novelty:
Anybody who’s in the mood for Italian food served with a unique flare should try a new restaurant called Grazie in Tokyo’s Ropongi district.
When it comes time for wine or the fruit or dessert course, you might find yourself looking not at a pretty waitress or handsome waiter, but at a $43,000 robot named “Ken-chan.”
A 1986 Associated Press article quotes the restaurant’s manager as saying that even if the robot isn’t very practical as a server, it certainly is good for business:
“Some people come in and order just a cup of coffee or tea to see the robot,” said Kenichi Echiuya, manager of Grazie’s and three other restaurants at the same location.
“This is a family restaurant, and the children especially love to see him,” he says. “He brings in customers.”
But by 1987 Ken-chan had become a symbol of overblown robot hype. The robot bubble, it seems, had burst. At least when it came to the hope of replacing human waiters. From the March 11, 1987 issue of Pacific Stars and Stripes:
Scientists are predicting that labor-saving robots will revolutionize the industry in the 21st century and free millions from the drudgery of menial service jobs.
Restaurant manager Mitsugu Watarai, however, is taking those forecasts with a grain of salt. He attempted to introduce a mechanical waiter at his Grazie Italian Restaurant in the Ropongi entertainment district and calls the idea “impractical.”
The Pacific Stars and Stripes piece ends with a particularly depressing visual — the robot waiter relegated to the corner of the restaurant, waiting for a future that may not be quite as spectacular as we were promised.
Ken-chan now gathers dust in one corner of the restaurant, waiting for technology to catch up with the complexities of waiting tables. His inactivity is seemingly mute evidence that the 21st century and the golden age of robots might be a lot more than 13 years away.