April 5, 2013
Imagine a world where the only media you consume serves to reinforce your particular set of steadfast political beliefs. Sounds like a pretty far-out dystopia, right? Well, in 1969, Internet pioneer Paul Baran predicted just that.
In a paper titled “On the Impact of the New Communications Media Upon Social Values,” Baran (who passed away in 2011) looked at how Americans might be affected by the media landscape of tomorrow. The paper examined everything from the role of media technology in the classroom to the social effects of the portable telephone — a device not yet in existence that he predicted as having the potential to disrupt our lives immensely with unwanted calls at inopportune times.
Perhaps most interestingly, Baran also anticipated the political polarization of American media; the kind of polarization that media scholars here in the 21st century are desperately trying to better understand.
Baran understood that with an increasing number of channels on which to deliver information, there would be more and more preaching to the choir, as it were. Which is to say, that when people of the future find a newspaper or TV network or blog (which obviously wasn’t a thing yet) that perfectly fits their ideology and continuously tells them that their beliefs are correct, Americans will see little reason to communicate meaningfully with others who don’t share those beliefs.
Baran saw the media’s role as a unifying force that contributed to national cohesion; a shared identity and sense of purpose. With more specialized channels at their disposal (political or otherwise) then Americans would have very little overlap in the messages they received. This, Baran believed, would lead to political instability and increased “confrontation” on the occasions when disparate voices would actually communicate with each other.
Baran wrote in 1969:
A New Difficulty in Achieving National Cohesion. A stable national government requires a measure of cohesion of the ruled. Such cohesion can be derived from an implicit mutual agreement on goals and direction — or even on the processes of determining goals and direction. With the diversity of information channels available, there is a growing ease of creating groups having access to distinctly differing models of reality, without overlap. For example, nearly every ideological group, from the student underground to the John Birchers, now has its own newspapers. Imagine a world in which there is a sufficient number of TV channels to keep each group, and in particular the less literate and tolerant members of the groups, wholly occupied? Will members of such groups ever again be able to talk meaningfully to one another? Will they ever obtain at least some information through the same filters so that their images of reality will overlap to some degree? Are we in danger of creating by electrical communications such diversity within society as to remove the commonness of experience necessary for human communication, political stability, and, indeed, nationhood itself? Must “confrontation” increasingly be used for human communication?
National political diversity requires good will and intelligence to work comfortably. The new visual media are not an unmixed blessing. This new diversity causes one to hope that the good will and intelligence of the nation is sufficiently broad-based to allow it to withstand the increasing communication pressures of the future.
The splintering of mass media in the United States over the past half a century has undoubtedly led to the stark “differing models of reality” that Baran describes. The true believers of any ideology will tow the party line and draw strength from their particular team’s media outlets. But the evidence remains inconclusive when it comes to the average American. Simply put, there’s not a lot of evidence that people who aren’t already highly engaged politically will be influenced by partisan media sources to become more radical or reactionary as the case may be.
Writing in the Annual Review of Political Science this year, Markus Prior explains, “Ideologically one-sided news exposure may be largely confined to small, but highly involved and influential segment of the population.” However, “there is not firm evidence that partisan media are making ordinary Americans more partisan.”
Stepping back and looking at ourselves from the perspective of a future historian, it’s easy to argue that we could still be in the early days of highly-polarized mass media. The loosening and eventual elimination of the FCC’s fairness doctrine in the 1980s saw the rise of talk radio hosts unhindered by the need to give opposing viewpoints equal airtime. The rise of the web in the mid-1990s then delivered even more channels for political voices to deliver their messages through the young Internet. User-generated online video saw its rise with the birth of YouTube in the mid-2000s allowing for the dissemination of visual media without many of the regulations politicians and content creators must normally adhere to when broadcasting over the public airwaves. The rise of social media in this decade has seen everyone from your grandmother to hate groups being given a platform to air their grievances. And tomorrow, who knows?
Just how much more polarized our nation’s mainstream political voices can become remains to be seen. But it may be safe to say that when it comes to a lack of message overlap and increased political diversity in new forms of media, Paul Baran’s 1969 predictions have long since become a reality.
March 18, 2013
Many of us here in the 21st century like to think of the newspaper as this static institution. We imagine that the newspaper was born many generations ago and until very recently, thrived without much competition. Of course this is wildly untrue. The role of the newspaper in any given community has always been in flux. And the form that the newspaper of the future would take has often been uncertain.
In the 1920s it was radio that was supposed to kill the newspaper. Then it was TV news. Then it was the Internet. The newspaper has evolved and adapted (remember when TV news killed the evening edition newspaper?) and will continue to evolve for many decades to come.
Visions of what newspapers might look like in the future have been varied throughout the 20th century. Sometimes they’ve taken the form of a piece of paper that you print at home, delivered via satellite or radio waves. Other times it’s a multimedia product that lives on your tablet or TV. Today we’re taking a look at just a few of the newspapers from the futures that never were.
Knight Ridder’s Newspaper Tablet (1994)
The newspaper tablet of the future was demonstrated in a 1994 concept video released by Knight Ridder. I found the video over at the Open Video Project back in 2007 and wrote a short blog post about it. I’m sure glad I didn’t make any snarky comments about how this whole tablet thing was never going to happen because as we know, the iPad would emerge less than three years later.
Back in 2011, a judge in the Apple vs. Samsung patent battle made note of this video as possible prior art which could invalidate some of Apple’s iPad patents. However, last year an appeals court found that the Knight Ridder concept tablet couldn’t be considered prior art and that Apple’s patent claims were significantly different enough.
From the Knight Ridder video:
Let’s take a closer look at the Information Design Lab’s vision of the electronic newspaper of the future. On first glance, it looks just like a printed newspaper. In fact, you can browse stories and turn pages just as you would on paper. But if a story interests you, you can read it more deeply. Suppose this story about Bosnia catches your attention. Just touch the text and the full story appears. What you read is no longer limited to the physical constraints of the printing press and production process. A story is edited for content and completeness, not for newshole.
And the tablet newspaper extends communication beyond the written word. Touch the map and it comes alive, using the tools of sound and animation to tell the story.
Philco-Ford’s Newspaper Printer (1967)
We recently looked at an episode of the CBS show “The 21st Century,” hosted by Walter Cronkite titled, “At Home, 2001.” Originally airing on March 12, 1967, the show took viewers of the late 1960s to the futuristic world of the year 2001. In the future, news would be delivered by a satellite feed and stories could be printed out at the touch of a button.
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.
You might recognize this newspaper printer from another concept video from 1967 by Philco-Ford called 1999 A.D.
Back to the Future II (1989)
In Back to the Future II‘s futuristic world of 2015 they have hoverboards, flying cars and instant-dry jackets. But the newspaper’s physical presence looks pretty identical to that of 1989. The form and function hasn’t changed, but futurist jokes about everything unhealthy being good for you (think steak being healthy in Woody Allen’s Sleeper) is shown with this below the fold headline: “Cholesterol May Be Cancer Cure.”
RCA’s Newspapers by Radio (1930s, ’40s)
In the 1930s and ’40s a surprisingly large number of newspapers and broadcasters (sometimes owned by the same company) were experimenting with newspaper delivery by radiowaves. The idea was that unused radio spectrum could be licensed to deliver newspapers at night via “radio facsimile.” These “radio faxpapers” would be printed in the home while everyone was sleeping. The family would wake up to a freshly printed newspaper without a paperboy ever having to get his hands stained with ink.
Minority Report (2002)
The newspaper in the 2002 film Minority Report seems to have the size and flexibility of a printed newspaper, but the technological advancement of a web-connected device. Once John Anderton’s (Tom Cruise) becomes a fugitive of pre-crime justice we see a newspaper on public transit that’s interrupted with an animated breaking news special report.
My favorite headline from that newspaper is in the upper right corner of the screen: “$30 Billion approved.” For what, we’re not sure. But you can rest assured that $30 billion has been approved for something somewhere.
L.A. Times Laserjet Printed Newspaper (1988)
The April 3, 1988 issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine was dedicated to what Los Angeles might look like in the year 2013. Their predictions included art by Syd Mead and plenty of what you’d expect from late-1980s futurism: fingerprint verification at the ATM, computers in the classroom, smart appliances, and plenty of household robots. The prediction about what the newspaper of the future might look like included printed copy delivered electronically to you by way of the personal computer:
With a barely perceptible click, the Morrow house turns itself on, as it has every morning since the family had it retrofitted with the Smart House system of wiring five years ago. Within seconds, warm air whooshes out of heating ducts in the three bedrooms, while the water heater checks to make sure there’s plenty of hot water. In the kitchen, the coffee maker begins dripping at the same time the oven switches itself on to bake a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls. Next door in the study, the family’s personalized home newspaper, featuring articles on the subjects that interest them, such as financial news and stories about their community, is being printed by laser-jet printer off the home computer — all while the family sleeps.
Jetson’s Televiewer (1962)
In the third episode of “The Jetsons” George sits down to read the newspaper on his Televiewer device. As we’ve seen with videophones in the Jetsons universe, there’s not a lot of consistency around what the various devices are capable of doing. Sometimes a given console will appear to be dedicated to one task (as is often the case with their videophones) but here George appears to be reading on a more generic device that we can assume might also handle broadcast TV.
Pneumatic Tube Delivery (1900)
As we’ve seen in our examination of the midcentury animated TV show “The Jetsons,” the pneumatic tube was thought to be the wave of the future, being installed as a way to deliver goods (and people!) right into our homes. The newspaper may still be of the deadtree variety, but according to the December 24, 1900 issue of the Boston Globe Bostonians of the future would have their paper delivered each morning by tube.
The pneumatic tube service, by the way, will have reached its perfection long before the first half of the new century has flown. It will have become a most important factor in the domestic life of the people which also will have undergone great changes.
Through such tubes a householder will undoubtedly receive his letters, his readymade lunches, his laundry, his morning and evening paper, and even the things he may require from the department store, which will furnish at the touch of a button any essential solid or liquid that can be named.
Blade Runner (1982)
In the 1982 neo-noir film Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, we see the protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) reading a newspaper. The film takes place in the year 2019, but the newspaper looks like it would be right at home in 1982. That is, except for the content. The newspaper headline is difficult to make out, but according to Blade Runner messageboards the headline probably reads: “Farming the Oceans, the Moon, and Antarctica.”
National Newspaper (1900)
At the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were incredibly local. There was no such thing as a nationally focused newspaper like USA Today. But in the December 26, 1900 issue of the New York World, Alfred Harmsworth, the editor of the London Daily Mail, predicted that there would soon be national newspapers.
We are entering the century of combination and centralization. I feel certain that the newspaper of the twentieth century will be drawn into the vortex of combination and centralization. In fact, given the man, the capital, the organization and the occasion, there seems to be no reason why one or two newspapers may not presently dominate great sections of the United States, or almost the whole of Great Britain. In other words, where there are now a multitude of papers — good, bad and indifferent — there will be then one or two great journals.
Neon Newsboy (1937)
Today the street corner newsboy may be relegated to cartoon cliches about young newsies screaming “EXTRA! EXTRA!” all around town to announce breaking news, but back in 1937 newsboys in Philadelphia were outfitted with the wave of the future: neon signs. From the April, 1937 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine:
Newsboys in Philadelphia wear neon signs that flash across their chests the name of the paper they represent. The neon lamp not only has a strong advertising appeal, making it easy to “spot” a newsboy on a crowded street at night, but it protects the boy selling paper in automobile traffic. To be practical, the chest lamp had to be shockproof and operate on a portable battery. The name of the newspaper is made of a single continuous tube of glass, its base imbedded in a plastic substance which protects the tube from shock and breakage. The neon is activated by a battery which gives forty-eight hours service on one cell. A small vibrator changes the direct current to alternating current and a transformer steps up its voltage. Battery, vibrator and transformer are carried in the boy’s apron.
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 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.