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.
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 22, 2013
Back in 1970 the idea of a black person being elected president of the United States sat somewhere between flying cars and robot servants in the realm of futuristic possibility. The ink was barely dry on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court had only recently ruled in 1967 that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and there were just 10 black members of the House of Representatives and one black member of the U.S. Senate. A black president was still very much the domain of science fiction.
But civil rights activist Roy Wilkins thought Americans electing their first black president could very well be a reality by the year 2000. His prediction appeared in a 1970 book edited by Irvin A. Falk called Prophecy for the Year 2000 which included futuristic ideas from a number of notable figures. At that time, Wilkins was executive director of the NAACP.
Wilkins touches on a number of different issues that he saw as hindrances to progress, but he remained optimistic that should the “tremendous problem of education” be addressed “in the next 30 to 100 years” then the country will be greater for it. He explains that, “it took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.” With the nation’s recent progress, a black president was not “impossible.”
An excerpt from the book appears below.
I think probably what we will have in this country (if our progress in human relations between whites and blacks is going to be progressively better than it has been in the past 40 years) by the year 2000 is a great diminution in the kind of racial conflict that we now have. We will have more unity between the races. I think we’re going to evolve, not melt together. We have a distinctive contribution to make to each other.
In the United States in the year 2000, I think it will be no phenomenon to see Negroes occupying all kinds of positions on all kinds of levels. There will be interracial marriage, and people won’t talk about it as such anymore. They’ll talk about it from another point of view: is the person a good person or a bad person?
This, of course, means that the separatism which we know today, initiated, I’m sorry to say, by a good many people whom I regard as misguided among the Negroes, will give way to a mutually respectful coexistence. Each one will respect the other’s religion, and the other’s race.
I regard this period in our human relations here in the United States as an interlude. I think the young Negro militants, so called, are trying to find themselves, and as soon as they do, then they will get back on the track of being human beings rather than being black human beings. It took us almost 200 years to elect a Catholic President, and presumably it will take us a few years to elect a Jewish President.
We’ll elect a Negro President, and I don’t conceive it to be impossible. It is not in the dim future. It is not a hundred years away; it is not 200 years away. It is much nearer than that. As far as race relations abroad go, I don’t think Rhodesia can last, and I don’t think South Africa can last in its present attitude. It simply isn’t possible, no matter how well armed, and how well controlled the politics of the country happen to be by a numerical minority. It is simply not in the cards for that minority to control the majority forever. There will be either a bloody upheaval and a long struggle to the death or there will be some kind of mediation and negotiation. Rhodesia and South Africa cannot last.
In this country, we can say confidently that most of the white majority knows very little, basically, about the Negroes, and a great many Negroes, many more than you would suppose, are totally ignorant about white people and about the ways to deal with them. The belligerence and arrogance of some of the black nationalists now is a natural reaction of persons who try to cover up the fact that they are unable to deal with other people.
I think prejudice can only be overcome by knowledge, by association and by a regard for people as people, irrespective of their color. What needs to take place in the next 30 to 100 years is a tremendous program of education. People are all together, and the big problem before us is learning to live together. People are people. It isn’t a question of white versus black. It is good versus bad. And if we can see that, we are on our way.
Roy Wilkins died in 1981, so he didn’t have the opportunity to see Barack Obama elected as the nation’s first black president.
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?
August 8, 2012
According to Athelstan Spilhaus, writing the comic strip “Our New Age” was his way of slipping a little subliminal education into the Sunday funnies. Each week the strip took a different topic—such as ocean currents or heredity or the moons of Mars—and explained in a very straightforward way just what made that area of scientific discovery so interesting. Sometimes, he would dabble in futurism, looking at automated hospitals or the robot teachers of tomorrow—but the December 26, 1965 edition of the strip stands out as its most forward-looking. Spilhaus clearly had some fun writing about these mid-’60s predictions that included everything from citizens voting on specific laws by telephone to the dapper-looking kangaroo servants of the future.
The prediction for 1976? That human space flight (the moon landing was still 4 years away, mind you) would become so common place that rescue missions for astronauts stranded in orbit may be necessary from time to time.
According to the above panel, the world of 1986 would see synthetic food, no doubt similar to the meal in a pill or some other factory-made contrivance. And, by the year 2006, the strip argues, people will see the rise of a form of direct democracy enabled by advancements in telecommunications. (A similar version of direct voting by citizens was predicted in a 1981 children’s book called World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play.)
Today, the more techno-utopian among us hope that one day we may be able to upload our entire brains into computers. But this 1965 vision of the year 2016 would be happy with a simple direct-link. Basement biohackers are currently experimenting with different ways to alter the human body, but we’re still quite a ways from the technological singularity.
Time and again we’ve seen predictions of robot servants, like the Jetsons‘ Rosey. But every once and a while we come across more blood and bone visions of our futuristic servants. For instance, in 1967 nuclear chemist Glenn T. Seaborg predicted that, by the year 2020, we’d all be driven around by super-intelligent ape chauffeurs.
In that same vein, the last panel of this comic strip gave kids of the 1960s hope for a kangaroo butler in their future. Now, the kangaroo’s method of hopping may make balancing a tray such as that impractical, but you can’t deny that he certainly pulls off that bow-tie.