May 10, 2013
The Omni Future Almanac was published in 1982 — a year when America would see double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment. Despite all this, the authors of the book were generally optimistic about the future of the nation. Technology, they explained, would solve many of the problems facing the country. In conjunction with this, the American people would surely worker smarter and simplify their lives, all while improving everyone’s standard of living.
From the book:
By 2000, most Americans will be experiencing a new prosperity. The problems of shrinking energy supplies and spiraling costs will be offset by developments in computers, genetic engineering, and service industries that will bring about lifestyle changes that will in turn boost the economy. Basically, Americans will be able to simplify their lives and spend less money supporting themselves. Indeed, energy conservation will force Americans to become more resourceful fiscally and to spend less on many items.
But what about prices of the future? That double-digit inflation stoked fears that prices for common food items in the future would skyrocket.
The average price of a pound of beef in the year 2010? The book predicted it would be $22.75. The actual cost? About $3.75.
The prices of a loaf of bread? They predicted it would hit $8. Actual cost? About $2.50.
But which single commodity did they predict would level out in the 21st century? Somewhat shockingly, gasoline.
That’s right, the book predicted that a gallon of gas (which cost about $1 in 1980) would peak at $4 in 1990 and then level off to $2 not only in the year 2000 but maintain that price into the year 2010 as well.
But those staggering prices for basic sustenance doesn’t look quite so scary when you consider what they thought the average American would be paid.
A secretary of the year 2010? $95,000. A factory worker? $95 an hour.
Of course, wages for secretaries, factory workers and public high school teachers haven’t even kept pace with inflation. But at least a subway ride isn’t yet $20.
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 1, 2012
There seems to be two occasions when people most enjoy making predictions: anniversaries (think the American Bicentennial, New Year’s, etc) and dates that include round numbers (any year ending in zero). Such was the case in 1950 when many people halfway through the 20th century enjoyed predicting what life would be like in the year 2000 — obviously the roundest numbered year of our modern age.
The January 1950 issue of Redbook magazine asked, “What will the world of 2000 A.D. be like? Will the machine replace man? How will our children and grandchildren spend their leisure? How, indeed, will they look?” The mag asked four experts — curiously all men, given that Redbook was and is a magazine aimed at women — about what the world may look like fifty years hence.
Aldous Huxley, author of the 1931 dystopian novel Brave New World, looked at working life in the year 2000. Specifically, how people might work in the home, in the laboratory, in the office, in the factory and on the farm.
Aldous Huxley began his article by describing the major challenges that would confront the world at the dawn of the 21st century. He predicted that the global population would swell to 3 billion people — a figure less than half of the 6.1 billion that would prove to be a reality by 2000.
During the next fifty years mankind will face three great problems: the problem of avoiding war; the problem of feeding and clothing a population of two and a quarter billions which, by 2000 A.D., will have grown to upward of three billions, and the problem of supplying these billions without ruining the planet’s irreplaceable resources.
Let us assume—and unhappily it is a large assumption—that the nations can agree to live in peace. In this event mankind will be free to devote all its energy and skill to the solution of its other major problems.
Huxley’s predictions for food production in the year 2000 are largely a call for the conservation of resources. He correctly points out that meat production can be far less efficient than using agricultural lands for crops. Moreover, he discusses the growing importance of synthetic materials (a reality we take for granted in so many ways today). His description of synthetics was incredibly prescient, if not very surprising, coming from a man whose most famous novel imagined a high-tech world built on mass production.
By 2000, let us hope, the peoples of the world will have adopted a program to increase the planet’s output of food and other necessities, while conserving its resources. Because all available land will be needed for food production, concerted efforts will be made to derive all the fibers used for textiles from inorganic materials or vegetable wastes. Food crops will be cultivated on the land now devoted to cotton, flax, hemp and jute, and, since wool will no longer be used, the huge flocks of sheep which now menace Australian and North American watersheds will be greatly diminished. Because of the need to give overworked soil a rest and to extract the greatest possible number of calories from every acre under cultivation, meat production, which is fantastically wasteful of land, will be cut down, and increasing attention will be given to the products, vegetable no less than animal, of the ocean. Landlocked inlets, lakes, ponds and swamps will be scientifically farmed.
In many parts of the world forests are being recklessly destroyed. To conserve them we shall have to develop new types of synthetic building materials and new sources for paper. That the production of a comic supplement should entail the death of thousands of magnificent trees is a scandal which cannot much longer be tolerated.
How will individuals be affected by all this? For many farmers the changes will mean a shift from one kind of production to another. For many others they will entail a transfer to the chemical industry. For the chemical industry is bound to grow more important as world erosion compels us, for the sake of the land, to rely increasingly on synthetics derived from practically inexhaustible inorganic materials.
The world of 2000 A.D. was seen by many to be one of increased leisure. But Huxley sees that potential for better working conditions and increased standards of living as obtainable only through a sustained peace. These same predictions of a leisure-oriented society, by Huxley and others living mid-century, would inspire the push-button cliche later parodied in the 1962 TV show “The Jetsons.”
Perhaps Huxley’s most inaccurate prediction is his assumption that an increase in productivity will mean an increase in wages for the average worker. As we’ve seen over the last half a century, increased worker productivity has not led to a dramatic increase in wages.
That enormous technological advances will be recorded during the next fifty years is certain. But to the worker as a worker, such advances will not necessarily be of great significance. It makes very little difference to the textile worker whether the stuff he handles is the product of a worm, a plant, a mammal or a chemical laboratory. Work is work, and what matters to the worker is neither the product nor the technical process, but the pay, the hours, the attitude of the boss, the physical environment. To most office and factory workers in 2000 the application of nuclear fission to industry will mean very little. What they will care about is what their fathers and mothers care about today—improvement in the conditions of labor. Given peace, it should be possible, within the next fifty years, to improve working conditions very considerably. Better equipped, workers will produce more and therefore earn more. Meanwhile most of the hideous relics of the industrial Middle Ages will have been replaced by new factories, offices and homes. More and more factories and offices will be relocated in small country communities, where life is cheaper, pleasanter and more genuinely human than in those breeding-grounds of mass neurosis, the great metropolitan centers of today. Decentralization may help to check that march toward the asylum, which is a threat to our civilization hardly less grave than that of erosion and A-bomb.
Huxley rightly predicts that the world would have to face the challenges that go along with having an aging population. Huxley himself would only live to see the year 1963, but he acknowledged what life would be like for young people reading his article.
If the finished product means little to the worker, it means much to the housewife. New synthetic building materials will be easier to keep clean. New solar heating systems will be cheaper and less messy. Electronics in the kitchen will greatly simplify the task of the cook. In a word, by 2000 the business of living should have become decidedly less arduous than it is at present. But, though less arduous, it will last on the average a good deal longer. In 2000 there will be more elderly people in the world than at any previous time. In many countries the citizens of sixty-five and over will outnumber the boys and girls of fifteen and under. Pensions and a pointless leisure offer no solution to the problems of an aging population. In 2000 the younger readers of this article, who will then be in their seventies, will probably be inhabiting a world in which the old are provided with opportunities for using their experience and remaining strength in ways satisfactory to themselves, and valuable to the community.
All in all, I’d say that Huxley’s predictions were fairly accurate in spirit. Like so many prominent people of mid-century, he fails to predict or consider the dramatic social changes that would occur which had a direct impact on the 21st century workforce. But his idea that “work is work” and people simply want to find the best work they can with the best conditions and pay seems to be a timeless observation.
What do you say? I’m by no means an expert on Huxley and would welcome the opinion of others who may be able to read between the lines and offer insight into his vision of the year 2000.
October 29, 2012
This is the sixth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
As a child, did you ever think that one day you might be able to vacation on the moon? You weren’t alone. A permanent settlement on the moon wasn’t some crackpot scheme only touted by fringe elements in the mad science community. Scientists, politicians, clergymen and journalists were all promising that once humans inevitably set foot on the moon, permanent settlements (and vacation resorts!) were sure to follow.
The sixth episode of “The Jetsons” revolved around this assumption that the moon would soon be the perfect destination for a Boy Scout-like camping trip. Titled “Good Little Scouts,” the episode originally aired on October 29, 1962 and was probably a pleasant distraction for U.S. viewers from the previous week’s headlines which were all about the Cuban missile crisis. We follow Elroy’s Space Cub troop and their new scout leader, George Jetson, to the moon. The only problem for George? His boss’s son Arthur is along for the ride and—when he goes off wandering the moon by himself—he causes George to get lost and look like a fool.
It’s not stated explicitly, but the sixth episode might provide the first look at a building on the earth’s surface — Grand Central Space-tion. Grand Central clearly takes its architectural cues from the Googie style — more specifically New York’s JFK airport TWA terminal, which was opened in 1962 (the same year as the Jetsons premiere) and designed by Eero Saarinen.
In this episode we learn that the moon is a bit like Yellowstone National Park — it has a hotel and some accommodations, but it’s largely unexplored and makes for a great camping trip. The moon has a Moonhattan Tilton Hotel, a play on the name Manhattan Hilton Hotel.
Fans of the AMC TV show “Mad Men” may recall a storyline wherein Conrad Hilton, the head of the Hilton hotel chain, wants an advertising campaign that includes a Hilton on the moon. This story arc wasn’t entirely fictional. The Hilton company (most especially Barron Hilton, one of Conrad’s sons) was known for their various promotions in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s that promised they would be the first hotel on the moon. They even had futuristic moon hotel keys made, which you can see over at BBC Future, where I’ve written about various visions the people at Hilton had for hotels on the moon.
Just as “The Jetsons” was inspired by futuristic ideas of the day and turned them even more fantastical, so too did Arthur Radebaugh‘s “Closer Than We Think” sift through the news stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s looking for predictions that could be heightened through fanciful illustration. As we looked at in February, the techno-utopians of the late 1950s were convinced that the Space Age would bring about a wondrous future of moon tourism. The June 1, 1958 edition of “Closer Than We Think” showed two couples dancing the night away in low gravity as they honeymoon on the moon; the earth sparkling in the distance.
Scenic spots on the moon, in years ahead, may become honeymoon havens, like Niagara Falls today. Newly wedded couples will be able to fly to a low-cost lunar holiday in a space craft propelled by thermo-nuclear energy. Space expert Wernher von Braun foresees pressurized, air-conditioned excursion hotels and small cottages on the moon. Couples could dance gaily there, whirling high in the air due to reduced gravity pull, and look out on a strange, spectacular scenery — part of which would be a spaceman’s view of the familiar outlines of the continents of the earth.
And it wasn’t just comic strip illustrators who saw humans living on the moon as a certainty. Insurance companies, banks and other financial institutions aren’t usually known for their exaggerated science fiction claims in advertising, but the early 1960s saw just that with a newspaper advertisement from 1962 for Michigan Mutual Liability. The ad imagined that by the year 2012 we’d be picnicking on Mars and have suburban-style homes on the moon.
This Jetsons episode is a perfect example of the Jetson formula that uses absurdist cartoon logic (complete with green, two-head Martians on the moon) but still manages to plant the seed of a wondrous future for 21st century humans in space. Recognizing how many kids were watching this episode on repeat throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it’s easy to see why so many people continue to ask, where’s my vacation on the moon?