January 29, 2013
Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite’s regular half-hour CBS documentary program “The 21st Century” was a glorious peek into the future. Every Sunday night viewers of the late 1960s were shown all the exciting technological advancements they could expect to see just 30 or 40 years down the road. The March 12, 1967, episode gave people a look at the home of the 21st century, complete with 3D television, molded on-demand serving dishes, videophones, inflatable furniture, satellite newspaper delivery and robot servants.
Cronkite spends the first five minutes of the program deriding the evils of urban sprawl and insisting that everyone dreams of a house in seclusion on a few acres of land. Cronkite and his interviewee Philip Johnson insist that moving back into ever denser cities is the wave of the future. It’s interesting then that Cronkite must pivot before showing us the standalone home of tomorrow. This would be a second home, Cronkite tells us — far removed from the high density reality that everyone of the 21st century must face:
Let’s push our imaginations ahead and visit the home of the 21st century. This could be someone’s second home, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. It consists of a cluster of pre-fabricated modules. This home is as self-sufficient as a space capsule. It recirculates its own water supply and draws all of its electricity from its own fuel cell.
Living Room of 2001
The living room of the future is a place of push-button luxury and a mid-century modern aesthetic. The sunken living room may feature inflatable furniture and disposable paper kids’ chairs, but Cronkite assures us that there’s no reason the family of the future couldn’t have a rocking chair — to remind us that “both the present and the future are merely extensions of the past.”
Once inside we might find ourselves in a glass enclosure where the lint and dirt we’ve accumulated during our trip is removed electrostatically. Now we step into the living room. What will the home of the 21st century look like inside? Well, I’m sitting in the living room of a mock-up of the home of the future, conceived by Philco-Ford and designed by Paul McCobb. This is where the family of the 21st century would entertain guests. This room has just about everything one would want: a big (some might say too big) full color 3D television screen, a stereo sound system that could fill the room with music, and comfortable furniture for relaxed conversation.
If that living room looks familiar it may be because it’s the same house from the Internet-famous short film “1999 A.D.” produced in 1967 (often mistakenly dated as 1969, which would make the moon landing stuff less impressive) and starring a young Wink Martindale.
Cronkite explains that a recent government report concludes that Americans of the year 2000 will have a 30-hour work week and month-long vacations “as the rule.” He goes on to tell viewers that this will mean much more leisure time for the average person:
A lot of this new free time will be spent at home. And this console controls a full array of equipment to inform, instruct and entertain the family of the future. The possibilities for the evening’s program are called up on this screen. We could watch a football game, or a movie shown in full color on our big 3D television screen. The sound would come from these globe-like speakers. Or with the push of a button we could momentarily escape from our 21st century lives and fill the room with stereophonic music from another age.
Home Office of 2001
Later, Cronkite takes us into the home office of the future. Here the newspaper is said to be delivered by satellite, and printed off on a gigantic broadsheet printer so that the reader of the future can have a deadtree copy.
This equipment here will allow [the businessman of the future] to carry on normal business activities without ever going to an office away from home.
This console provides a summary of news relayed by satellite from all over the world. Now to get a newspaper copy for permanent reference I just turn this button, and out it comes. When I’ve finished catching up on the news I might check the latest weather. This same screen can give me the latest report on the stocks I might own. The telephone is this instrument here — a mock-up of a possible future telephone, this would be the mouthpiece. Now if I want to see the people I’m talking with I just turn the button and there they are. Over here as I work on this screen I can keep in touch with other rooms of the house through a closed-circuit television system.
With equipment like this in the home of the future we may not have to go to work, the work would come to us. In the 21st century it may be that no home will be complete without a computerized communications console.
One of the more interesting gadgets in the office of the future that we can clearly see but Cronkite never addresses is the “electronic correspondence machine” of the future, otherwise known as the “home post office.” In the film “1999 A.D.” we see Wink Martindale’s character manipulating a pen on the machine, which allows for “instant written communication between individuals anywhere in the world.”
Kitchen of 2001
The kitchen of the future includes plastic plates which are molded on-demand, a technology that up until just a few years ago must have seemed rather absurd. With the slow yet steady rise of home 3D printers this idea isn’t completely ridiculous, though we still have quite a ways to go.
After dinner, the plates are melted down, along with any leftover food and re-formed for the next meal. It’s never explained why the molding and re-molding of plates would be any easier or more efficient than simply allowing the machine to just wash the dishes. But I suppose a simple dishwasher wouldn’t have seemed terribly futuristic to the people of 1967.
This might be the kitchen in the home of the future. Preparation of a meal in the 21st century could be almost fully automatic. Frozen or irradiated foods are stored in that area over there.
Meals in this kitchen of the future are programmed. The menu is given to the automatic chef via typewriter or punched computer cards. The proper prepackaged ingredients are conveyed from the storage area and moved into this microwave oven where they are cooked in seconds. When the meal is done the food comes out here. When the meal is ready, instead of reaching for a stack of plates I just punch a button and the right amount of cups and saucers are molded on the spot.
When I’ve finished eating, there will be no dishes to wash. The used plates will be melted down again, the leftovers destroyed in the process and the melted plastic will be ready to be molded into clean plates when I need them next.
Robot Servants of 2001
Later in the program Cronkite takes us to the research laboratory of London’s Queen Mary College where we see robots in development. Cronkite interviews Professor M. W. Thring about the future of household robotics.
Cronkite assures us that the robots are not coming to take over the world, but instead to simply make us breakfast:
Robots are coming. Not to rule the world, but to help around the house. In the home of 2001 machines like these may help cook your breakfast and serve it too. We may wake up each morning to the patter of little feet — robot feet.
During the interview, the professor addresses one of the most important questions of the futuristic household robot: will it look like a human?
CRONKITE: Professor Thring, what are these?
THRING: These are the first prototypes of small scale models of the domestic housemaid of the future.
CRONKITE: The domestic housemaid of the future?
THRING: Yes, the maid of all work. To do all the routine work of the house, all the uninteresting jobs that the housewife would prefer not to do. You also give it instructions about decisions — it mustn’t run over the baby and things like that. And then it remembers those instructions and whenever you tell it to do that particular program it does that program.
CRONKITE: What is the completed machine going to look like? Is it going to look like a human being?
THRING: No. There’s no reason at all why it should look like a human being. The only thing is it’s got to live in a human house and live in a human house. It’s got to go through doors and climb up stairs and so on. But there’s no other reason why it should look like a human being. For example, it can have three or four hands if it wants to, it can have eyes in its feet, it can be entirely different.
Thring explains that the robot would put itself away in the cupboard where it would also recharge itself whenever it needed to do so — not unlike a Roomba today, or the automatic push-button vacuum cleaners of “The Jetsons,” which first aired just five years earlier.
I first saw this program many years ago while visiting the Paley Center for Media in New York. I asked Skip over at AV Geeks if he had a copy and it just so happens he did. He digitized it and released it as a DVD that’s now available for purchase, called Future Is Not As Good As It Used To Be. Many thanks to Skip for digging out this retro-futuristic gem. And if anyone from CBS is reading this, please release “The 21st Century” online or with a DVD box set. Cronkite’s show is one of the greatest forward-looking artifacts of the 20th century.
January 28, 2013
This is the 16th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The Jetsons episode “The Little Man” originally aired on ABC on Sunday January 13, 1963. The story revolves around the accidental shrinking of George to no more than a foot high by Mr. Spacely’s new MiniVac machine. Miniaturizing humans was a somewhat popular theme of b-movies that preceded The Jetsons, like Dr. Cyclops (1940) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). The episode is one of the weakest of the series, but it does have one of the more interesting versions of the ubiquitous videophone:
In the world of the Jetsons the videophone takes many forms. But unlike its most common household use today — as a mere application within a computer or phone — the Jetsonian videophone is its own piece of dedicated hardware.
The videophone (my preferred term for a technology that has gone by many names during the 20th and 21st centuries) is a strange and beautiful technology. It was a perennial technology of the future; continually popping up in different waves as being just around the corner throughout the 20th century. From the earliest experiments with practical television in the 1920s people were promised that picturephone technology was on its way. Television wasn’t immediately envisioned as a broadcast medium, but rather was imagined as point-to-point two-way talkers like those in the classic 1927 film Metropolis. The videophone was hyped at both the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fair and as recently as the early 2000s communications companies were still making concept videos for landline videophone machines that today look laughably anachronistic.
But then out of nowhere the videophone was suddenly just here. Without much warning videophone was a reality. Just not in a form that companies like AT&T were promising us for nearly a century. Rather than acting as its own independent appliance in the home, we have videophone capabilities embedded within our devices — our computers and phones now often have little cameras seamlessly hidden inside. And the technology is almost a secondary consideration within the applications we use for video: we have Skype, Gchat Video among a host of other less well known apps.
In the world of “The Jetsons” the videophone is largely depicted as it was in the 1950s — as its own appliance. The videophone is a solid piece of hardware not unlike a TV of the 1950s or even radio of the the 1930s, but there’s very little consistency when it comes to what the Jetsonian videophone looks like. Below I’ve pulled just a few examples from the myriad videophones of the Jetsons universe.
Mr. Spacely has a standard desk model videophone that we see pop up again and again in business settings.
In the 1993 AT&T concept video “Connections” a young woman exits a plane and her parents meet her in the terminal (how retro is that!). Rather than whip out her cellphone the moment she touches down as we’re so apt to do here in the future, she proceeds to tell her parents that before making their way to baggage claim, they need to stop at the payphones — the video payphones.
This vision of the hardwired public videophone is not unlike the Visaphone that we see used in the first episode of The Jetsons:
The Jetsonian videophone often has buttons that are never explained, but sometimes (like in the screenshot below) we see characters use buttons to do something as wild as pick up their children with a gigantic robot arm.
Of course, the biggest concern about the videophone was the idea that people could see what you looked like in your own home. We have a certain feeling of security in our homes; a feeling that people aren’t able to catch us with our pants down — both figuratively and literally. In the second episode of The Jetsons we see that Jane is obviously quite stressed by an early morning videophone call she gets from a friend before she has put on her face — again, literally. Jane pops on a mask that’s made to look exactly like her own face and by the end of the sequence we learn that her friend has done the same.
The 1955 short film The Future is Now addressed this problem, though they weren’t so much worried with putting on an entire face mask in order to answer the videophone:
What do you wear to answer the phone? What difference does it make? None, today! But tomorrow, if videophone comes, as well it might, then the world has found itself another problem.
When George gets pulled over for speeding the videophone is used to call in to the judge. Interestingly, some officials in the city of Inglewood, California tried out a more low-tech version of this instant roadside justice in 1926. From the book The Great Car Craze by Ashleigh Brilliant:
In a system which the [Los Angeles] Times dubbed “court-a-la-carte,” the judge and bailiff together with table, chair, and lawbooks, were installed in the back of a light truck which “parked unostentatiously near the motorcycle officers’ beat” and waited for the telltale sound of the siren, signifying that an arrest was about to be made. The truck then rushed to the site of the arrest and confronted the presumably dumfounded driver with the full majesty of the law. The only disadvantage of the system from the judge’s point of view was that the “business” was not always as brisk as it might have been.
The video-recording device on most videophones is often hidden in The Jetsons, but sometimes we get to see hints of what might be cameras, like in the home model below:
It’s not just humans of the future who enjoy the use of videophones. In episode eight of the series, “Rosey’s Boyfriend,” two robot lovers get to spend time together despite their distance from each other.
The Googie-tastic design of the various videophones in the Jetsons’ world strangely makes me long for the videophone as an independent piece of hardware. But much like other services that seem to be quickly melding into our phones, tablets and phablets, I think these dedicated videophone devices will remain relegated to the retrofuture.
January 24, 2013
“Internet introverts are socially dysfunctional; they write online, talk online, view the world from online, order books and pizza online.” Ordering pizza… online? Who ever dreamt of such crazy a thing? This warning about our increasingly isolated and dysfunctional lives reads like it could’ve been written today. But it actually comes from the May 3, 1996 edition of the Los Angeles Times, where Michael Shulman assured readers that ordering pizza online was the exclusive domain of the cyberspace hermit.
I like pizza. Like I really like pizza. But it’s difficult being a pizza lover in Los Angeles. Mostly because, as major cities go, L.A. has the worst pizza in the country.
Don’t get me wrong, L.A. has some of the best food around, besting comparably sized cities like New York and Chicago in just about every category. But when it comes to pizza, it’s incredibly hard to find a decent slice here in the City of Bladerunner. So when I found a good “pizza pizza” place (my highly refined distinction for that greasy variety of pizza that doesn’t include flatbreads or any fancy ingredients I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce when I was five years old) I was blown away. I was really excited that I had my new go-to for that staple of the modern American diet. I was excited… until I realized that anytime I wanted good pizza I’d have to pick up the stupid phone. Sadly, this particular pizza place didn’t have online ordering. In the year 2013 making your customers pick up the phone for delivery is roughly the equivalent of showing up at their door with a sack of flour, some tomato paste and a bucket of mushrooms and telling them they’ll have to cook the pizza themselves. It’s just not done. How old fashioned. How unfuture.
Compared with even a decade ago we’re much more comfortable with buying goods online. And businesses that sell things online often find unexpected benefits to the transaction. For instance, a 2006 study found that a customer ordering pizza online typically spent about 15% more per order than those ordering over the phone.
So when I saw this video of a computer ordering pizza in 1974 (via some nifty voice tech, rather than say the ARPANET) I immediately started thinking about all the futuristic visions of pizza ordering from the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Apple’s “Grey Flannel Navigator” (1988)
Ordering pizza is such a common exercise that it was the perfect foil in future-oriented movies and videos to help place the viewer in a familiar but slightly more technologically advanced setting. The 1988 Apple concept video “Grey Flannel Navigator” used just such a device. The video shows the office of the near future and how one might be able to collaborate and work from home. Midway through the video our protagonist goes to the fridge and apparently doesn’t find anything to his liking. He faithfully returns to his computer and pulls up a window labeled “Pizza-for-One” which guarantees delivery in 30 minutes — or it’s free!
The Net (1995)
The 1995 movie (sorry, “cyber thriller”) The Net has a similar sequence, though in the mid-1990s that kind of service was becoming slightly less absurd. Indeed the anachronism of the pizza ordering in The Net is that Sandra Bullock’s character is not paying by credit card and instead paying for it in cash.
ACLU’s Total Surveillance Society (2004)
But it’s not all sunshine and mushrooms when it comes to ordering pizzas in the future. The ACLU released a video in 2004 that used a pizza order as the backdrop for a dystopian world where everyone’s personal information is kept online — and used against them.
Today, every national pizza chain in the U.S. has online ordering. But it does beg the question: now that we live in “the future” what will ordering a pizza in tomorrow’s future look like? Whatever it looks like, I’m sure only the socially dysfunctional, overworked office drones who are being spied on by Big Brother will do it.
January 22, 2013
Back in 1970 the idea of a black person being elected president of the United States sat somewhere between flying cars and robot servants in the realm of futuristic possibility. The ink was barely dry on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court had only recently ruled in 1967 that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and there were just 10 black members of the House of Representatives and one black member of the U.S. Senate. A black president was still very much the domain of science fiction.
But civil rights activist Roy Wilkins thought Americans electing their first black president could very well be a reality by the year 2000. His prediction appeared in a 1970 book edited by Irvin A. Falk called Prophecy for the Year 2000 which included futuristic ideas from a number of notable figures. At that time, Wilkins was executive director of the NAACP.
Wilkins touches on a number of different issues that he saw as hindrances to progress, but he remained optimistic that should the “tremendous problem of education” be addressed “in the next 30 to 100 years” then the country will be greater for it. He explains that, “it took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.” With the nation’s recent progress, a black president was not “impossible.”
An excerpt from the book appears below.
I think probably what we will have in this country (if our progress in human relations between whites and blacks is going to be progressively better than it has been in the past 40 years) by the year 2000 is a great diminution in the kind of racial conflict that we now have. We will have more unity between the races. I think we’re going to evolve, not melt together. We have a distinctive contribution to make to each other.
In the United States in the year 2000, I think it will be no phenomenon to see Negroes occupying all kinds of positions on all kinds of levels. There will be interracial marriage, and people won’t talk about it as such anymore. They’ll talk about it from another point of view: is the person a good person or a bad person?
This, of course, means that the separatism which we know today, initiated, I’m sorry to say, by a good many people whom I regard as misguided among the Negroes, will give way to a mutually respectful coexistence. Each one will respect the other’s religion, and the other’s race.
I regard this period in our human relations here in the United States as an interlude. I think the young Negro militants, so called, are trying to find themselves, and as soon as they do, then they will get back on the track of being human beings rather than being black human beings. It took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.
We’ll elect a Negro President, and I don’t conceive it to be impossible. It is not in the dim future. It is not a hundred years away; it is not 200 years away. It is much nearer than that. As far as race relations abroad go, I don’t think Rhodesia can last, and I don’t think South Africa can last in its present attitude. It simply isn’t possible, no matter how well armed, and how well controlled the politics of the country happen to be by a numerical minority. It is simply not in the cards for that minority to control the majority forever. There will be either a bloody upheaval and a long struggle to the death or there will be some kind of mediation and negotiation. Rhodesia and South Africa cannot last.
In this country, we can say confidently that most of the white majority knows very little, basically, about the Negroes, and a great many Negroes, many more than you would suppose, are totally ignorant about white people and about the ways to deal with them. The belligerence and arrogance of some of the black nationalists now is a natural reaction of persons who try to cover up the fact that they are unable to deal with other people.
I think prejudice can only be overcome by knowledge, by association and by a regard for people as people, irrespective of their color. What needs to take place in the next 30 to 100 years is a tremendous program of education. People are all together, and the big problem before us is learning to live together. People are people. It isn’t a question of white versus black. It is good versus bad. And if we can see that, we are on our way.
Roy Wilkins died in 1981, so he didn’t have the opportunity to see Barack Obama elected as the nation’s first black president.
January 15, 2013
There are many different ways to talk about the future, but few are more self-centered than guessing how the generations of tomorrow may judge you and yours.
Some of Keillor’s observations ring true for those of us here in the year 2013: he predicts that the future of air travel will only become more and more cumbersome and he imagines that Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with stagnant wages may become an issue. But the vast majority of the piece reads as cranky “get off my lawn” nostalgia. Which is to say, he’s romanticizing a past that never existed in the service of bemoaning a future that will never arrive. He begins by calling contemporary culture “trash” (being careful to clarify that the New York Times doesn’t qualify as such) and pretty much goes downhill on the future of humanity from there.
But it’s his vision of the media landscape of the future that’s most interesting to me. Maybe because in many ways he didn’t go far enough (only 1,000 movies available on the Internet?) and bizarrely longs for some antiquated version of celebrity that he implies is somehow more pure. But his dominant fear — that the way we consume media would be rapidly changing into the 21st century — was one prophecy fully realized. It’s just up to those of us living in “the future” to decide whether any of those changes are a good thing.
Even just holding this 1996 issue of The New York Times Magazine in my hand makes me acutely aware of how much has changed in the world of publishing since then. The magazine is thick at 216 pages and bursting at the seams with slick colorful ads — a sign of healthy profits for any media outlet in the mid-90s. But as more and more eyeballs (and ad dollars) have shifted to the digital realm, it’s hard to judge a mag by its deadtree count.
Keillor writes about the death of the newspaper and frustrations with getting Internet images to load:
People are going to miss it a lot — they’ll think: What a wonderful thing a newspaper was! You opened it and there it was, you didn’t have to wait three minutes for the art to download, and when your wife said, “Give me a section,” you did.
Of course, few Americans in the year 2013 are waiting three minutes for an image to load online but I personally identify with those who would stubbornly cling to something like the deadtree Sunday Times; something most easily enjoyed (and more importantly shared) over a cup of coffee with some pulp and ink on your fingers. You have no idea how much it pains me to identify with Mr. Guy Noir himself in this case.
Later in the piece Keillor romanticizes the celebrity of the past — the “real” ones — like Frank Sinatra. He worries that in the future we won’t have any common language with which to talk around the water cooler or the dinner table. And Keillor shudders to think about the overwhelming amount of media (10,000 CDs on the Internet, oh my!) future generations will have at their disposal:
People will feel nostalgia for celebrities, real ones, like there used to be back when there were three TV networks and Americans watched the same shows at the same time and talked about them the next day at work. Television was common currency. Sunday afternoons you watched the NFL game with your dad on the couch and then you went to the table and ate pot roast and mashed potatoes. Everybody else did the same thing.
Every American knew Sinatra by sight and by voice, but when you scattered the audience among 200 cable-TV channels and 1,000 movies you could watch on the Internet and 10,000 CDs you could download, there weren’t many true celebrities anymore. People will miss them. There will be new celebrities, thousands of them, but not many people will know who they are.
Like I mentioned, I share some of Keillor’s strange nostalgic notions about deadtrees and sharing a newspaper over breakfast. But what’s most interesting to me is not so much his premature nostalgia for 1996 but his rather stereotypical nostalgia for the 1950s. For a man whose art has focused almost exclusively on the idyllic past that never was, I suppose this makes perfect sense.
NYTimes.com doesn’t seem to have the article digitized but you can read the piece in its entirety at Deseret News. Amy Crehore‘s 1996 oil painting “Nostalgia Man” appeared alongside Keillor’s original article and is republished here with permission.