May 2, 2013
“The ubiquity and power of the computer blur the distinction between public and private information. Our revolution will not be in gathering data — don’t look for TV cameras in your bedroom — but in analyzing information that is already willingly shared.”
Are these the words of a 21st century media critic warning us about the tremendous quantity of information that the average person shares online?
Nope. It’s from a 1985 article for the Whole Earth Review by Larry Hunter, who was writing about the future of privacy. And it’s unlikely Mr. Hunter could have any more accurately predicted the Age of Facebook — or its most pervasive fears.
Hunter begins his article by explaining that he has a privileged peek into the computerized world that’s just over the horizon:
I live in the future. As a graduate student in Artificial Intelligence at Yale University, I am now using computer equipment that will be commonplace five years from now. I have a powerful workstation on my desk, connected in a high-speed network to more than one hundred other such machines, and, through other networks, to thousands of other computers and their users. I use these machines not only for research, but to keep my schedule, to write letters and articles, to read nationwide electronic “bulletin boards,” to send electronic mail, and sometimes just to play games. I make constant use of fancy graphics, text formatters, laser printers — you name it. My gadgets are both my desk and my window on the world. I’m quite lucky to have access to all these machines.
He warns, however, that this connectedness will very likely come with a price.
Without any conspiratorial snooping or Big Brother antics, we may find our actions, our lifestyles, and even our beliefs under increasing public scrutiny as we move into the information age.
Hunter outlines the myriad ways that corporations and governments will be able to monitor public behavior in the future. He explains how bloc modelling helps institutions create profiles that can be used for either benign or nefarious purposes. We can guess that credit service companies beginning to sell much more specific demographic information to credit card companies in the early 1980s generally falls into the nefarious column:
How does Citicorp know what your lifestyle is? How can they sell such information without your permission? The answer is simple: You’ve been giving out clues about yourself for years. Buying, working, socializing, and traveling are acts you do in public. Your lifestyle, income, education, home, and family are all deductible from existing records. The information that can be extracted from mundane records like your Visa or Mastercard receipts, phone bill, and credit record is all that’s needed to put together a remarkably complete picture of who you are, what you do, and even what you think.
And all this buying, working and socializing didn’t even include through mediums like Facebook or Twitter in 1985. Hunter explains that this information, of course, can be used in a number of different ways to build complex pictures of the world:
While the relationship between two people in an organization is rarely very informative by itself, when pairs of relationships are connected, patterns can be detected. The people being modeled are broken up into groups, or blocs. The assumption made by modelers is that people in similar positions behave similarly. Blocs aren’t tightly knit groups. You may never have heard of someone in your bloc, but because you both share a similar relationship with some third party you are lumped together. Your membership in a bloc might become the basis of a wide variety of judgements, from who gets job perks to who gets investigated by the FBI.
In the article Hunter asks when private information is considered public; a question that is increasingly difficult to answer with the proliferation of high-quality cameras in our pockets, and on some on our heads.
We live in a world of private and public acts. We consider what we do in our own bedrooms to be our own business; what we do on the street or in the supermarket is open for everyone to see. In the information age, our public acts disclose our private dispositions, even more than a camera in the bedroom would. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should bring a veil of secrecy over public acts. The vast amount of public information both serves and endangers us.
Hunter explains the difficulty in policing how all of this information being collected might be used. He makes reference to a metaphor by Jerry Samet, a Professor of Philosophy at Bentley College who explained that while we consider it an invasion of privacy to look inside someone’s window from the outside, we have no objection to people inside their own homes looking at those outside on the public sidewalk.
This is perhaps what makes people so creeped out by Google Glass. The camera is attached to the user’s face. We can’t outlaw someone gazing out into the world. But the added dimension that someone might be recording that for posterity — or collecting and sharing information in such a way — is naturally upsetting to many people.
Why not make gathering this information against the law? Think of Samet’s metaphor: do we really want to ban looking out the window? The information about groups and individuals that is public is public for a reason. Being able to write down what I see is fundamental to freedom of expression and belief, the freedoms we are trying to protect. Furthermore, public records serve us in very specific, important ways. We can have and use credit because credit records are kept. Supermarkets must keep track of their inventories, and since their customers prefer that they accept checks, they keep information on the financial status of people who shop in their store. In short, keeping and using the kind of data that can be turned into personal profiles is fundamental to our way of life — we cannot stop gathering this information.
And this seems to be the same question we ask of our age. If we volunteer an incredibly large amount of information to Twitter in exchange for a free communications service, or to Visa in exchange for the convenience of making payments by credit card, what can we reasonably protect?
Hunter’s prescription sounds reasonable, yet somehow quaint almost three decade later. He proposes treating information more as a form of intangible property, not unlike copyright.
People under scrutiny ought to be able to exert some control over what other people do with that personal information. Our society grants individuals control over the activities of others primarily through the idea of property. A reasonable way to give individuals control over information about them is to vest them with a property interest in that information. Information about me is, in part, my property. Other people may, of course, also have an interest in that information. Citibank has some legitimate interests in the information about me that it has gathered. When my neighbor writes down that I was wearing a red sweater, both of us should share in the ownership of that information.
Obviously, many of Hunter’s predictions about the way in which information would be used came true. But it would seem that there are still no easy answers to how private citizens might reasonably protect information about themselves that’s collected — whether that’s by corporations, governments or other private citizens.
Chillingly, Hunter predicted some of our most dire concerns when Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t yet even a year old: “Soon celebrities and politicians will not be the only ones who have public images but no private lives — it will be all of us. We must take control of the information about ourselves. We should own our personal profiles, not be bought and sold by them.”
What do you think? Does our age of ubiquitous sharing concern you? Do you think our evolving standard of what is considered private information generally helps or hurts society?
February 27, 2013
The February 1989 issue of Life magazine predicted that, by the year 2000, many staples of modern American life might find themselves on the scrapheap of history. Life predicted that by the year 2000 people would need to say goodbye to everything from film (pretty much) to all-male clergy in the Catholic church (not so much).
Bid ta-ta to LPs, fur coats and sugar. Toodle-oo to checkbooks, oil and swimming in the ocean. Happy trails to privacy, porno theaters and who knows, maybe even Democrats. It’s not just animals and vegetation that are departing the planet (currently one species every 15 minutes). With them goes, for better or worse, any number of the tangibles and intangibles now taken for granted. Gathered here are the contents of an as-yet-unburied time capsule dedicated to impending obsolescence. So should auld acquaintance be forgot…
The predictions are especially interesting in that they were made shortly before the birth of the modern web and the mid-1990s flood of non-tech types getting online. What then will bring about the decline of the mailman? The magazine insists that it’s not email, but the fax machine.
A few of the things that Life said you’d “Say goodbye to…”
The Red Cent
“The extinction of penny candy along with the high cost of copper have made the life expectancy of this coin not worth a plugged nickel.”
On February 4, Canada stopped putting their penny into circulation. They joined the likes of Australia, Norway and Sweden among others, but there’s no indication that Americans will be rid of Lincoln’s copper face anytime soon.
Water from faucets
“Play taps for this kind of H2O, which pollution will make unfit to drink.”
Bottled water is a $22 billion industry, with many people believing that it’s safer than tap water. But given the 1.5 million tons of plastic used to make those disposable bottles, it’s taking quite a toll on the environment.
“Using microchips, proud grandparents threaten to store thousands of images on portable show-and-tell miniscreens.”
Life‘s prediction about the death of film was pretty spot-on. The interesting detail that they missed: those “portable show-and-tell miniscreens” would also be know as phones.
“Fed up with C rations, Americans want fresh food. No word yet from the nation’s pampered pets.”
Here in the 21st century, farmer’s markets and fresh produce are more in vogue than meal pills and canned food. But what are we supposed to stock our zombie apocalypse bunkers with?
“A database owned by the phone company will feed every home with 5,000-plus movies — some worth watching — via optical fibers.”
Sure, your local video store may be shuttered, and you may even watch movies on your phone, but it’s not just the phone company that’s controlling the vast database of content you’re watching. Netflix, Redbox and iTunes have been absolutely devastating the business of Blockbusters everywhere.
“Invest your money in diaper services because the environment is crying for a change.”
The disposable diaper industry has shown no signs of slowing down in the 21st century, with about 3.6 million tons of diapers dumped into American landfills each year, making up about 2.1% of municipal waste.
“Not snow nor rain nor sleet stays these couriers, but the fax will.”
With the end of Saturday postal service coming this August, there’s no question that the USPS is struggling. But it certainly wasn’t the fax machine that made deadtree letters an endangered species. The people who knew what electronic mail was in 1989 were few and far between.
“Say ahh. Fluoridation and good oral hygiene will root out cavities.”
While oral hygiene has improved over the course of the last century, you’d be mistaken if you think it’s because fewer people are going to the dentist.
“The handwriting is on the wall. For security, we’ll no longer sign checks and documents. Instead fingerprints, read by an electronic eye, will serve as ID.”
We certainly seem to be moving in this direction, but you’re likely still scribbling your John Hancock on everything from credit card receipts to digital FedEx package scanners.
Plugs and Switches
“Voice-activated appliances and electronics with self-contained energy sources will be set to play from the word go.”
Nothing says late 20th century futurism quite like voice-activated control of everything. But until Siri and her robot friends work out the bugs (and maybe we feel less stupid shouting at our machines), it has quite a ways to go before it becomes a ubiquitous technology.
“Competition from cable and entertainment systems catering to highly individual tastes may deliver a TKO to television’s Big Three.”
The Big Three television networks have seen a decreasing market share since 1989, but they’re certainly alive and kicking here in the 21st century as they still have some of the largest budget shows and still host many of the live events (Academy Awards, Super Bowl) that are impervious to time shifting.
“As capitalist tools shore up the state, the U.S.S.R. will retire Lenin.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall wouldn’t happen until November of that year, though it’d be hard to call Communism in the 21st century completely dead. But even China’s Communist Party—though still 80 million members strong—has embraced its own version of quasi-capitalism.
“The lagoon city may be going, going, gondola as water and air pollution erode its functions.”
Venice is still a city, but with scary weather like the flooding this past November there’s no telling how much longer that may be the case.
“Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of this vanishing species.”
Life may not have seen the internet revolution that was just over the horizon, but at least they understood that typewriters were on their way out.
“Plastic cards that open electronic locks (although they work only erratically in today’s hotels) will also show up at the front doors of homes and offices.”
With all the attention being paid recently to the vulnerability of hotel keycards, it’s unlikely many of us will be trusting our front doors to those magnetic strips anytime soon.
“For heaven’s sake, anything can happen, even at the Vatican.”
Pope Benedict XVI delivered his final public address as Pope today, but despite a change of leadership, it’s unlikely the Catholic church will be ordaining women as priests in the near future.
Life had a few hits, and more than a few misses. But in a cruelly ironic twist Life didn’t predict yet another event of the year 2000… its own demise as a monthly magazine.
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 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.
November 23, 2012
In 1936, a quarterly magazine for book collectors called The Colophon polled its readers to pick the ten authors whose works would be considered classics in the year 2000. Sinclair Lewis, author of the 1935 hit It Can’t Happen Here, was a natural choice for the top spot. Just five years earlier Sinclair had been the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. But some of the authors are likely forgotten names to even the most ardent reader here in the year 2012:
- Sinclair Lewis
- Willa Cather
- Eugene O’Neill
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
- Robert Frost
- Theodore Dreiser
- James Truslow Adams
- George Santayana
- Stephen Vincent Benet
- James Branch Cabell
The editors at the magazine supplemented the published list with their own ideas of who might still be read in the year 2000. Their list included authors like Thomas Wolfe, H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway and Hervey Allen.
How do you think these readers of the 1930s did with their predictions? Who would you put on a list of authors read today who will still be read into the year 2080 and beyond? What do you think the future holds for the book, a form of technology that’s getting harder and harder to define as it becomes less popular as a physical object and more often a collection of words that reside in our devices?