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.
March 28, 2013
Anytime the government tries to ban something there are usually loud warnings about slippery slopes and guesses as to what perfectly reasonable American past-time might be banned next. If New York City bans trans fats (as it did in 2007), what’s next? Smoking in its parks? Oversized sodas? Oh, right. It banned those things too, with mixed success.
Perhaps the most notorious ban in U.S. history was our national experiment in forced sobriety. The United States ratified the 18th Amendment in January of 1919 which outlawed the sale of alcohol and many people were (understandably) not pleased. The one-year gap between the ratification of the amendment and it becoming the enforced law of the land led many people in 1919 to speculate (and joke) about the repercussions.
Life magazine ran a number of illustrations in 1919 predicting what would happen after the law went into effect. Their most dire guess? A mass exodus. This “Great Exodus of 1925″ would be thanks to new bans on everything from baseball to pork and beans:
- No Dancing
- No Golf
- No Pie
- No Kissing
- No Theatres
- No Smoking
- No Tiddly-Winks
- No Baseball
- No Pork and Beans
- No Ice Cream
- No Lemonade
- No Candy
- No Golf
- 6 p.m. curfew
No ice cream? That’s just about the darkest dystopian prediction we’ve ever looked at here on the Paleofuture blog.
Of course, the 18th Amendment became the only amendment of the U.S. Constitution to later be repealed. Thanks to the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, Americans could enjoy a drink again, though many dry counties still exist.
What do you think? Will alcohol prohibition ever be tried again? How much longer will tobacco be legal? Is a ban on large sodas a good idea?
February 20, 2013
Advertisers love to use futurism as a way to position their products as forward-thinking. Often, that connection to futurism comes with a healthy dose of humor — jokes that from the vantage point of the future look less ridiculous than they were probably intended.
In 1988, Samsung’s ad agency (Deutsch) produced a tongue-in-cheek magazine ad campaign to position their home electronics as the products you’ll be using long after Vanna White is replaced by a robot. Or long after shock jocks run for president.
The ad below ran in the October 1988 issue of Smithsonian magazine and featured Morton Downey, Jr. with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. (Downey died of lung cancer in 2001.) The “trash TV” pioneer appears in the ad as a presidential candidate in the year 2008 — a humorous idea in 1988, but perhaps less bizarre when you consider some recent presidential hopefuls. Below Downey’s photo, Samsung claims that they’ll be making the TV you watch his speeches on in that far off year.
Not unlike a joke in the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper, the ad below claims that by the year 2010 steak will be considered healthy. Of course, this is another joke that wasn’t too far of the mark, given the popularity of high-protein diets like the Atkins Diet and the Paleo Diet that are so fashionable today.
The ad insists that the microwave you’ll be be using to cook that 21st century steak will be made by Samsung. Now, I’ve never tried microwaving a steak, but I suspect that doing so wouldn’t sit well with Paleo Diet enthusiasts whose worldview leads them to romanticize the notion of eating like a caveman — or at least their modern conception of what a caveman ate.
In this last ad, we see allusions to the hit TV show “Wheel of Fortune” with a robot Vanna White. The ad claims that it will be the longest-running game show in the year 2012. Samsung insists that they’ll make the VCR you record it on.
Interestingly, this robot ad was the subject of some litigation after it ran in magazines. Vanna White sued Samsung for the ad, claiming that even though it depicts a robot, the company was capitalizing on her identity for promotional purposes without compensating her. White argued that there was a common law right to control how her likeness is used, even though Samsung doesn’t explicitly use her name or image. This “right to persona” argument was thrown out in a lower court, but in White v Samsung Electronics America it was ruled that White indeed had the right to control her persona under the Lanham Trademark Act and California common law.
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 24, 2013
“Internet introverts are socially dysfunctional; they write online, talk online, view the world from online, order books and pizza online.” Ordering pizza… online? Who ever dreamt of such crazy a thing? This warning about our increasingly isolated and dysfunctional lives reads like it could’ve been written today. But it actually comes from the May 3, 1996 edition of the Los Angeles Times, where Michael Shulman assured readers that ordering pizza online was the exclusive domain of the cyberspace hermit.
I like pizza. Like I really like pizza. But it’s difficult being a pizza lover in Los Angeles. Mostly because, as major cities go, L.A. has the worst pizza in the country.
Don’t get me wrong, L.A. has some of the best food around, besting comparably sized cities like New York and Chicago in just about every category. But when it comes to pizza, it’s incredibly hard to find a decent slice here in the City of Bladerunner. So when I found a good “pizza pizza” place (my highly refined distinction for that greasy variety of pizza that doesn’t include flatbreads or any fancy ingredients I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce when I was five years old) I was blown away. I was really excited that I had my new go-to for that staple of the modern American diet. I was excited… until I realized that anytime I wanted good pizza I’d have to pick up the stupid phone. Sadly, this particular pizza place didn’t have online ordering. In the year 2013 making your customers pick up the phone for delivery is roughly the equivalent of showing up at their door with a sack of flour, some tomato paste and a bucket of mushrooms and telling them they’ll have to cook the pizza themselves. It’s just not done. How old fashioned. How unfuture.
Compared with even a decade ago we’re much more comfortable with buying goods online. And businesses that sell things online often find unexpected benefits to the transaction. For instance, a 2006 study found that a customer ordering pizza online typically spent about 15% more per order than those ordering over the phone.
So when I saw this video of a computer ordering pizza in 1974 (via some nifty voice tech, rather than say the ARPANET) I immediately started thinking about all the futuristic visions of pizza ordering from the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Apple’s “Grey Flannel Navigator” (1988)
Ordering pizza is such a common exercise that it was the perfect foil in future-oriented movies and videos to help place the viewer in a familiar but slightly more technologically advanced setting. The 1988 Apple concept video “Grey Flannel Navigator” used just such a device. The video shows the office of the near future and how one might be able to collaborate and work from home. Midway through the video our protagonist goes to the fridge and apparently doesn’t find anything to his liking. He faithfully returns to his computer and pulls up a window labeled “Pizza-for-One” which guarantees delivery in 30 minutes — or it’s free!
The Net (1995)
The 1995 movie (sorry, “cyber thriller”) The Net has a similar sequence, though in the mid-1990s that kind of service was becoming slightly less absurd. Indeed the anachronism of the pizza ordering in The Net is that Sandra Bullock’s character is not paying by credit card and instead paying for it in cash.
ACLU’s Total Surveillance Society (2004)
But it’s not all sunshine and mushrooms when it comes to ordering pizzas in the future. The ACLU released a video in 2004 that used a pizza order as the backdrop for a dystopian world where everyone’s personal information is kept online — and used against them.
Today, every national pizza chain in the U.S. has online ordering. But it does beg the question: now that we live in “the future” what will ordering a pizza in tomorrow’s future look like? Whatever it looks like, I’m sure only the socially dysfunctional, overworked office drones who are being spied on by Big Brother will do it.