November 6, 2012
Twentieth-century Americans saw many different predictions for what the world of politics might look like in the 21st century. Some people imagined a world where politics ceased to matter much in daily life. Others saw a world where computers would allow for direct democracy and people voting from their homes. Some people thought that once women were allowed to vote, men would soon lose that privilege. Still others saw the complete conquest of the western hemisphere by American forces — and a president from Montreal by the year 2001.
Today Americans head out to the polls and while they may not be able to vote yet by home computer, they can rest assured: you’re allowed to vote regardless of gender.
Government by Computer
The 1981 kids book World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play by Neil Ardley imagined the impact that the emergence of smaller and smaller computers for the home might have on government. While the book acknowledges that there might be downsides to government storing records of citizens or using electronics for surveillance, there would also be benefits by enabling direct participation in the political process:
In a future where every home has a videophone computer system, everyone could take part in government. People could talk and air their views to others on special communication channels linking every home. These people would most likely be representatives of some kind — of a political party, a union, an industry and so on. But when the time comes to make a decision on any issue, everyone would be able to vote by instructing their computer. A central computer would instantly announce the result.
This kind of government by the people is a possibility that the computer will bring. It could take place on any scale — from village councils up to world government. In fact, it is more likely to happen in small communitites, as it would be difficult to reach effective national and international decisions, if millions of people always had to be asked to approve everything. Nevertheless, the computer will enable really important decisions to be put before the people and not decided by groups or politicians.
The February 11, 1911, Akron Daily Democrat in Akron, Ohio relayed the “breezy and imaginative” world of 90 years hence wherein the Senate will have swelled to 300 members (it currently has 100) and the House 800 (it currently has 435). And oh yes, the United States will completely take over the entire western hemisphere and the president will hail from a city formerly in Canada:
An unique feature of the coming inauguration will be the official program now being prepared by the inaugural committee. The elaborate designs for the front and back covers and the wealth of half-tone and other illustrations within, will make it really remarkable as a work of art and valuable as a souvenir. Besides a full description of the parade and the inaugural ceremonies the book will contain several interesting and timely articles by writers of note, among which will be a picture of the inauguration of the year 2001. The author assumes that the United States, then will have acquired the whole of the western hemisphere attaining a population of 300,000,000; that the President will be from Montreal, U.S.A., will have forty cabinet members to appoint; that the Senate will consist of 300 members and the House 800, and that Washington on that day will entertain 3,000,000 visitors, most of whom view the inaugural parade from airships.
Women Dominate in the Year 2010
The 1910 film Looking Forward featured a Rip Van Winkle type character who awakens in 2010 to find that men no longer have the right to vote. Produced ten years before American women gained the right to cast their ballots in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, the film depicts a world of men oppressed by women as soon as they’re allowed to vote.
The film is probably lost to history (as so many of this time period are), but thankfully a description exists from Eric Dewberry. His paper, “A Happy Medium: Women’s Suffrage Portrayals in Thanhouser Films, 1910-16″ explains the peculiar premise. Dewberry’s knowledge of the film comes from a description in the December 28, 1910 New York Dramatic Mirror:
The comedy Looking Forward (1910) centers around Jack Goodwin, a chemistry student who discovers a liquid compound which allows people to fall asleep for a determinate period of time without the pitfalls of aging. One day, Jack drinks the potion and wakes up in the year 2010. In addition to the marvels of futuristic “rapid transit facilities,” Jack is shocked to discover that men are in the social and political minority, and do not have the right to vote. In an attempt to “restore order,” Jack becomes a ‘suffragehim’ and is sent to jail for his activities. The female mayor of the city falls in love with Jack and offers to free him from prison if he will marry her. Jack wishes to restore “the rights of men,” however, and refuses to leave prison and accept the proposal unless the mayor signs a decree giving men their liberty. Upon signing, the end of the film shows Jack correcting the bride during the wedding ceremony, leading the Mayor down the aisle instead of vice versa and transferring the veil from his head to her head.
Less Politics, I Hope
In the 1984 edition of his book Profiles of the Future (that’s the edition I have, so I can’t speak to other editions) Arthur C. Clarke predicted that politics would become less important in the future — at least that was his hope.
I also believe – and hope – that politics and economics will cease to be as important in the future as they have been in the past; the time will come when most of our present controversies on these matters will seem as trivial, or as meaningless, as the theological debates in which the keenest minds of the Middle Ages dissipated their energies. Politics and economics are concerned with power and wealth, neither of which should be the primary, still less the exclusive, concern of full-grown men.
The TV Influence
There’s absolutely no denying that broadcasting has transformed the modern political campaign. Radio created the need for the political soundbite, and television created campaigns absolutely beholden to images. The 1949 book Television: Medium of the Future by Maurice Gorham was written at the dawn of television’s acceptance into the American home. Gorham argued that the naysayers of the day were wrong; that the television will have no more an impact on the opinion of the voting public than the radio.
Fears have been expressed lest this new reliance on television may lead to choice of candidates for their face rather than their real qualities; that the film-star types will have it all their own way. Personally I see no reason to think that this is a greater danger than we have faced in the radio age. Is it worse to vote for a man whom you have seen and heard than for a man whom you have heard but never seen except for fleeting glimpses in photographs and films? Is there any more reason why a man who is good on television should be a charlatan than a man who is good on radio? Or any inherent merit in a fine radio voice uttering speeches written by somebody else?
October 12, 2012
The February 26, 1977 edition of the Herald-Star in Steubenville, Ohio published dozens of predictions for the year 2000 made by the people of Steubenville, a working class town in eastern Ohio (and the birthplace of Dean Martin). Some of these letters came from local middle school kids 10-12 years old and they provide a fascinating snapshot of the era; unique in their ability to reflect the pessimism stirred by a down economy and shaken faith in government in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era, while also laying bare the irrational optimism of youth.
Many of the predictions are clearly influenced by the energy crisis, with many kids predicting there will be tough times ahead without access to cheap energy. However, there’s also optimism about space exploration and more than one reference to women as astronauts. Even though Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, the first American woman (Sally Ride, who died this past summer) wouldn’t become an astronaut until 1983 — a full six years after these kids were making their predictions.
Interestingly, for being middle schoolers these kids sure seem concerned about high taxes. All of these kids are now between 45 and 48 years old and if you happen to be one of them, I’d love to hear from you. How do you feel reading your predictions from the vantage point of “the future”? How do you feel about the years to come?
Some of the letters from the February 26, 1977 Herald-Star appear below:
New Great Depression
I think that by the year 2000 we will be in a great depression. People are saying that we are running out of fuel. People will be using machines to do everything. And machines run on fuel. If we run out of fuel we won’t be able to run the machines and people will be out of jobs. So we can save fuel. Everybody should try to save by turning their heat to 68 degrees.
Debbie Six, 12 (Harding School)
We’ll Find More Oil
My view of the future is that we will find more gas and oil. No one will be poor and we all will live in peace! Also in the future, I think they will find some mechanical device that could make kitchens, dining rooms and etc. You’d just push a button and WHAM!! An instant living room or WHAM!! an instant milkshake. And that’s my view of the future!
Emma Conforti, Age 11 (Harding School)
Robot Maids, Robot Teachers
In the year 2000, we will have all round buildings. We will have a robot teacher, a robot maid, and all workers will be robots, too. We will have a pocket computer that has everything you can name. We will even be able to push a button to get anything you want!
Marty Bohen, Age 10 (Harding School)
Electric Cars and Ladies on the Moon
The year 2000 might have everybody walking instead of riding in their cars because there might be a gas shortage by then, and the cars give out a lot of pollution. Or there might even be electric cars instead of gas cars. The year 2000 may send ladies to the moon to explore and look and see if there are people living on the moon. And when you work you will push buttons and robots will come out and do the work for you. And there will be lower prices and taxes, I hope.
Tim Villies, 10 (Harding School)
Cures For Every Sickness
In 2000 I will marry a doctor and maybe have kids. I would like my husband to be a doctor because he would be helping people and would still want to be close to my family. As for a job for me I would help the crippled boys and girls. I would still like to have my same friends. And the most important thing for there to be is no wars and killings. I hope they could find cures for every sickness. And everybody will care for each other.
Monica Katsaros, Age 10 (Harding School)
The Last Five Years Haven’t Been So Good
I think 2000 will be a good year. I hope so because the last five years haven’t been so good with people dying and getting shot and murdered. I will be a grown man by then and will be married. I’ll probably have kids. I hope it will be a good America.
Michael Beal, Age 10 (Harding School)
In the year 2000, I think there won’t be any crimes of any kind. Shorter school days and lower taxes. I hope there will be lower taxes and no crimes because I’ll be 33 years old and I am sick of crimes and high taxes. I hope woman can be astronauts. I also hope there won’t be any pollution. And I also hope there will be town in space, where people live in space capsules.
Lora Ziarko, Age 10 (Harding School)
Cars That Float On Air
I think the future will be better than it is now. The pollution problem will be solved and there will be cars that float on air. I will be 34 in the year 2000. I will have a good job designing modern houses with push-button controls for everything to make it easier on everyone.
You could push a button and a bed would unfold from the wall. Everything would run on solar energy so you wouldn’t have to worry about the fuel shortage. You wouldn’t have to go to school. It would be on TV and living would be much easier for everyone.
John Vecchione, Age 11 (Harding School)
Young People Unemployed
I think by the year 2000 we will be riding bikes or driving solar-energized cars. By then more younger people will be unemployed. The price of gas will go up and so will the price of coal, silver, gold and oil.
Pietro Sincropi, 10 (Harding School)
Living on Mars
I think it is going to be an all-new world. People are going to be able to live on the moon and on Mars. Man is going to have computers to do the work for him. It is going to be a computer run world.
Tracy McCoy, Age 12 (Harding School)
Most of the World Will Be The United States of America
In the year 2000 I will be 34 years old. And actually I don’t think kids will have to go to school, because I believe that families will have computers to educate students. That’s all for education. I also believe that most of the world will all be the United States of America. I also believe that business and industry will be up 75 per cent. And as for culture, the Model T will be an old artifact. And, if you have children or grandchildren, they’ll all be more interested in culture than ever.
Mike Metzger, Age 10 3/4 (Harding School)
I Hope By Then Things Will Get Better
I think that everything by the year 2000 will be different. I hope the violence will all be stopped. I hope that the computers don’t take over people’s jobs. I hope by then things will get better.
Mary Gallo, Age 12 (Harding School)
September 19, 2012
It was 50 years ago this coming Sunday that the Jetson family first jetpacked their way into American homes. The show lasted just one season (24 episodes) after its debut on Sunday September 23, 1962, but today “The Jetsons” stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism. More episodes were later produced in the mid-1980s, but it’s that 24-episode first season that helped define the future for so many Americans today.
It’s easy for some people to dismiss “The Jetsons” as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future. And it’s for this reason that, starting this Friday, I’ll begin to explore the world of “The Jetsons” one episode at a time. Each week I’ll look at a new episode from the original 1962-63 series, beginning with the premiere episode, “Rosey the Robot.”
Five decades after its debut, not a day goes by that someone isn’t using “The Jetsons” as a way to talk about the fantastic technological advancements we’re seeing today. Or conversely, evidence of so many futuristic promises that remain unfulfilled. Just look at a handful of news stories from the past few days:
- In fashion. (“Who better than the Jetsons to be inspired by for an out of space theme?”)
- Johnny Depp talks about the West Memphis Three emerging from prison after nearly two decades. ( ”By the time you came out, it’s ‘The Jetsons.’ It’s a whole ‘nother world.”)
- James Cameron talks about the future of interactive movies. (“There might be a certain amount of interactivity, so when you look around, it creates that image wherever you look,” Cameron says. He concedes it is far off: “You’re talking ‘Jetsons’ here.”)
- The future of cars, as depicted at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (“Considering that 2025 is only 13 years away, you would think that nobody’s going to go ‘Jetsons’ with their presentation, but the LAASDC doesn’t roll like that.”)
- The sound of kitschy futurism in modern music. (“Silencio allows Sadier’s various musical influences to breathe and linger, without being upstaged by the motorik propulsion, and ‘Jetsons’ kitsch, of the Stereolab formula.”)
Thanks to my Google Alerts for words and phrases like Jetsons, Minority Report, utopia, dystopia, Blade Runner, Star Trek, apocalypse and a host of others, I’ve been monitoring the way that we talk about the future for years. And no point of reference has been more popular and varied as a symbol of tomorrowism than “The Jetsons.”
Golden Age of Futurism
“The Jetsons” was the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster. People point to “The Jetsons” as the golden age of American futurism because (technologically, at least) it had everything our hearts could desire: jetpacks, flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks. But the creators of “The Jetsons” weren’t the first to dream up these futuristic inventions. Virtually nothing presented in the show was a new idea in 1962, but what “The Jetsons” did do successfully was condense and package those inventions into entertaining 25-minute blocks for impressionable, media-hungry kids to consume.
And though it was “just a cartoon” with all the sight gags and parody you’d expect, it was based on very real expectations for the future. As author Danny Graydon notes in The Jetsons: The Official Cartoon Guide, the artists drew inspiration from futurist books of the time, including the 1962 book 1975: And the Changes to Come, by Arnold B. Barach (who envisioned such breakthroughs as ultrasonic dishwashers and instant language translators). The designers also drew heavily from the Googie aesthetic of southern California (where the Hanna-Barbera studios were located)—a style that perhaps best represented postwar consumer culture promises of freedom and modernity.
The years leading up to “The Jetsons” premiere in September 1962 were a mix of techo-utopianism and Cold War fears. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 created great anxiety in an American public that already had been whipped up into a frenzy about the Communist threat. In February 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, but less than a year earlier the Bay of Pigs fiasco raised tensions between the superpowers to a dangerous level. Americans seemed equally optimistic and terrified for the future.
I spoke over the phone with Danny Graydon, the London-based author of the official guide to “The Jetsons.” Graydon explained why he believed the show resonated with so many Americans in 1962: “It coincided with this period of American history when there was a renewed hope — the beginning of the ’60s, sort of pre-Vietnam [protests], when Kennedy was in power. So there was something very attractive about the nuclear family with good honest values thriving well into the future. I think that chimed with the zeitgeist of the American culture of the time.”
Where’s My Jetpack?
As Graydon points out, “The Jetsons” was a projection of the model American family into the future. The world of ”The Jetsons” showed people with very few concerns about disrupting the status quo politically or socially, but instead showed a technologically advanced culture where the largest concern of the middle class was getting “push-button finger.”
It’s important to remember that today’s political, social and business leaders were pretty much watching ”The Jetsons” on repeat during their most impressionable years. People are often shocked to learn that “The Jetsons” lasted just one season during its original run in 1962-63 and wasn’t revived until 1985. Essentially every kid in America (and many internationally) saw the series on constant repeat during Saturday morning cartoons throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Everyone (including my own mom) seems to ask me, “How could it have been around for only 24 episodes? Did I really just watch those same episodes over and over again?” Yes, yes you did.
But it’s just a cartoon, right? So what if today’s political and social elite saw ”The Jetsons” a lot? Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.
This nostalgia for the futurism of yesteryear has very real consequences for the way that we talk about ourselves as a nation. So many people today talk about how divided we are as a country and that we no longer dream “like we used to.” But when we look at things like public approval of the Apollo space program in the 1960s, those myths of national unity begin to dissolve. Public approval of funding for the Apollo program peaked at 53 percent (around the first moon landing) but pretty much hovered between 35-45 percent for most of the 1960s. Why is there a misconception today about Americans being more supportive of the space program? Because an enormous generation called Baby Boomers were kids in the 1960s; kids playing astronaut and watching shows like “The Jetsons”; kids who were bombarded with images of a bright, shiny future and for whom the world was much simpler because they saw everything through the eyes of a child.
Why Only One Season?
If ”The Jetsons” is so important and resonated with so many viewers, then why was the show canceled after just one season (though it was revived in the 1980s)? I’ve spoken to a number of different people about this, but I haven’t heard anyone mention what I believe to be the most likely reason that “The Jetsons” wasn’t renewed for a second season: color. Or, more accurately, a lack of color. ”The Jetsons” was produced and broadcast in color, but in 1962 less than 3 percent of American households had a color television set. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972 that 50 percent of American households had a color TV.
The Jetsons’ future is bright; it’s shiny; and it’s in color. But most people watching on Sunday nights obviously didn’t see it like that. The immersive world of “The Jetsons” looks far more flat and unengaging in black and white. And unlike the other network shows it was up against on Sunday nights (which was in most markets “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on NBC and “Car 54 Where Are You?” on CBS) “The Jetsons” suffered disproportionately more from being viewed in black and white.
NBC also had an incumbent advantage. If you’d made “Walt Disney’s Wonderful of Color” appointment viewing for the past year (Disney jumped ship from ABC to NBC in 1961 where they not only began broadcasting in color, but added “color” to the name) it’s unlikely you’d switch your family over to an unknown cartoon entity. “The Jetsons” was the first show ever broadcast in color on ABC, but it was still up to individual affiliates as to whether the show would be broadcast in color. According to the September 23, 1962 New York Times only people with access to ABC’s owned-and-operated stations in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles were guaranteed to see the show broadcast in color—provided you owned a color set.
I’ve takens some screenshots from the DVD release of the first season to show just how dramatic a difference color can make with a show like this.
There’s also this promo from 1962, which gives us a taste of what “The Jetsons” looked like devoid of color. It’s bizarre for those of us who grew up on “The Jetsons” to see their fantastical world reduced to black and white:
There are a lot of “what-ifs” in “The Jetsons” universe that may have had substantial bearing on politicians, policymakers and the average American today. If we accept that media has an influence on the way that we view culture, and our own place in the future—as “The Jetsons” seems to ask us to do—we have to ask ourselves how our expectations might have changed with subtle tweaks to the Jetson story. What if George took a flying bus or monorail instead of a flying car? What if Jane Jetson worked outside of the home? What if the show had a single African-American character? These questions are impossible to answer, of course, but they’re important to recall as we examine this show that so dramatically shaped our understanding of tomorrow.
1985 and Beyond
Obviously the 1985-87 reboot of “The Jetsons” TV show played an important role in carrying the futuristic toon torch, but it’s in many ways an entirely different animal. The animation simply has a different feel and the storylines are arguably weaker, though I certainly remember watching them along with the original reruns when I was a kid in the 1980s. There were also movies produced—1990′s The Jetsons was released theatrically and the made-for-TV movie crossover The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones first aired in 1987. But for our purposes, we’ll just be exploring the first season and its immediate influence during the American Space Age. With talk of a live-action Jetsons movie in the works, it will be interesting to see how a revamped Jetsons might play today.
A few style notes that I’ll get out of the way:
- I spell Rosey the way it appeared in merchandise of the 1960s. Yes, you’ll sometimes see it spelled “Rosie” in video games and comics of the 1980s, but since our focus is the first season I’m sticking with Rosey.
- The show never mentions “within world” what year the Jetson family is living, but for our purposes we’ll assume it to be 2062. Press materials and newspapers of 1962 mention this year, even though the characters only ever say “21st century” during the first season of the show.
- Orbitty is from the 1980s reboot of The Jetsons. Orbitty, a pet alien, is essentially the Jar-Jar Binks of the Jetsons’ world and you probably won’t see me mention him again.
Meet George Jetson
The Jetsons, of course, represents a nostalgia for the future; but perhaps more oddly, it still represents the future to so many people who grew up with it. I’m excited to get started on this project and welcome your comments throughout this process, especially if you have vivid memories of the show from when you were a kid. I know I certainly do — I turned it into my career!
Update: The first paragraph of this post was revised to clarify that more episodes of “The Jetsons” were produced in the 1980s.
July 31, 2012
Yesterday, we looked at Wernher von Braun’s 1954 vision for a manned mission to Mars. But long before people imagined how we might plausibly put boots on Martian soil, we dreamed how one day we might be able to communicate with the planet.
Thanks to “canals” spotted on Mars in the late 19th century, there were some people here on Earth who thought there were indeed intelligent Martians somewhere out there. American astronomer Percivall Lowell, who wrote Mars as the Abode of Life in 1908, argued that what looked like canals on Mars were constructed by intelligent beings to bring water from the frozen poles to the dry equator. Lowell’s “canals” were first written about in 1877 by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who actually interpreted these passages as “channels,” or natural occurring formations that need not have been built by intelligent life to exist.
If there are indeed Martians out there, and no conceivable way to journey there ourselves, how might we communicate with them? The September 1919 issue of Popular Science Monthly featured a cover with a gigantic mirror mounted so that it could swing on an axis and reflect the sun’s rays up to Mars. The magazine imagined that Earthlings’ best bet would be to communicate with the planet in 1924, the next time when Mars would be closest to Earth.
The more imaginative modern astronomers are inclined to believe, with the late Professor Percival Lowell, that Mars is inhabited. Assume that Mars is inhabited. How can we talk to the Martians? What a world-wide sensation there would be if we were to receive from Mars a flash in response to a signal of ours!
In 1919, legendary animator Max Fleischer produced a short film called Hello Mars which was released in 1920. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a copy of it — and it’s entirely possible that one no longer exists — but if you know where to find a copy please let me know in the comments. The film, as Popular Science explains, sets about explaining the way in which humans might communicate with Mars in 1924 via mirrors (as seen on the cover of the magazine), huge flashing electric lights (thought to be too costly for the time) or gigantic strips of black cloth set out in the desert.
But how will the scientists signal Mars? At its nearest, the planet will be about thirty-five million miles away in 1924. Various proposals have been made by Professor Pickering, Professor Wood, and the imaginative Professor Flammarion. In order to visualize and explain how these distinguished astronomers will communicate with Mars, Mr. Max Fleischer has directed the preparation of a motion-picture film for the Bray Studios. Through the courtesy of Mr. Fleischer and the Bray Studios we are enabled to present on these two pages excerpts from the film.
The first (and most expensive) method of contacting Mars that’s explained in the film/magazine shows how millions of electric lights could be placed somewhere on Earth so that it might be visible from space.
The well known French astronomer, Professor Camille Flammarion, who has done more than any other man in Europe to popularize the notion of Mars’ habitability, suggested that an enormous area on the Earth should be covered with electric lights. It would be a costly experiment. A huge tract of land — a considerable portion of the Desert of Sahara, for instance — would have to be “planted” with millions of lamps. The current to illuminate the lamps would have to be generated in a power house big enough to run a railway. Andrew Carnegie once said that he hated to die rich. Here is a chance to get rid of several million dollars at one swoop.
The illustration above explains how a strips of cloth attached to electric motors may be set out in the desert in order to “wink” at the red planet.
The picture at left looks like a neatly cut-up farm. It represents Professor R. W. Wood’s proposed method of communicating with Mars. The Professor would cover some huge white space on the earth, a portion of the Desert of Sahara, for instance, with strips of black cloth. These strips he would wind and unwind by means of electric motors. The result would be a series of winks. When the black strips are wound up, the white sand below reflects the sun’s rays; when the strips are unrolled, the white area is covered. This is probably the cheapest method of optical signaling yet proposed.
Since this article was published in 1919, it’s important to remember that the world was still reeling from the devastation of WWI. The magazine imagines that not only would we have much to tell Martians, but we would likely have much to learn.
To the right we have the earth flashing a message to Mars. Who knows but some day we may tell the Martians all about our great war, all about the struggle for democratic ideals, all about the terrible upheaval through which we have just passed! Perhaps we will learn from an older and wiser planet how we ought to run the Earth.
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: