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.
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.
December 13, 2012
In the January, 1950, issue of Redbook author Philip Wylie laid out his predictions for the year 2000. Wylie’s predictions focused on the world of leisure and, depending on your point of view, it’s either a delightfully hedonistic vision of utopian living finally realized — or a darkly hedonistic vision of sloth and sin.
This version of the 21st century includes new drugs that will replace the old-fashioned booze and painkillers of mid-century; an interactive television which includes a special suit that allows you to engage all five senses; and vacations to Mars whenever you please.
Reading for pleasure will be rare and spectator sports will be enjoyed, though college football athletes will no longer be required to study anything. Wylie doesn’t say it explicitly, but we can assume that he means college athletes of the year 2000 would be paid — a contentious issue here in the 21st century. Hunting will be a thing of the past, but not because of any moral objections to killing animals: the forests will have simply vanished and wild animals completely exterminated. Even the bathing suit will be a thing of the past, as society becomes more comfortable with nudity and discards puritanical notions of modesty. Again, depending on your personal preferences these are either wonderful advancements in society or depraved practices in a world gone mad.
At the end of Wylie’s article he encourages readers to cut out his article so that their grandchildren might read it and gauge its accuracy. Well, how did he do?
From the January 1950 issue of Redbook:
The principal pastime of our grandchildren will surely be Telesense. With the telephone first, then the cinema, next the radio, and now television, we have shown that we are determined to carry vicarious sensory experience in the home to its utmost lengths. In fifty years, then, the average American will spend some five hours a day in his “Telesense room” or “cabinet.” Here, dressed in a Telesense suit—a layer of flexible metal outside, a layer of ventilated plastic inside, and a fluid between—the citizen of A.D. 2000 will take a position in an elaborate electromagnetic field, before a three-dimensional image-projector of life size. To television’s color, hearing and sight, Telesense will electromagnetically and chemically add touch and smell.
Telesense will provide massage hours—light for relaxation and heavy for reducing. And, of course, the “heavenly hunks of men” and the “delicious blonde eyefuls” of A.D. 2000 will not merely flirt with their vast audiences, croon to them, roll distant eyes, and woo them abstractly, as now. They will be able actually to make their audiences feel them hanging around their necks, or sitting in their laps.
“Spectator sports” will be conducted in plastic-domed stadia. Football and baseball will still be played—though Telesense will keep ninety per cent of the audience at home. College athletes will no longer be required to study anything. The private automobile will have been replaced by the Buzzcopter—a 300- m.p.h., single-control air machine, powered by electronic storage batteries with a 10,000-mile capacity. “Buzzcopter polo” played in fast machines at low altitudes will supply the disaster-hungry audience with an average of two smashups per game. Deaths throughout the U.S.A. in the crashes of private Buzzcopters—incidentally—will average five hundred daily; and injuries, over four million a year. The inability of people to stop the trend of car accidents will gradually, have made Americans decide that the thing to do about the cost of the Machine Age to life and limb is to be sporting about it.
In this whizzing, stimulated, sensory world, a real thrill will be as hard to come by relatively as it is now, compared with Grandpa’s day. Grandpa, as a youth, got a kick out of a husking bee—Grandma out of a quilting bee. We require a jam session, at least. And that trend explains why gambling, in fifty more years, will be everyman’s (and woman’s and child’s) passion. Half the tax revenue will derive from continuous lotteries, in which scores of millions will regularly participate.
Naturally, the citizens of such a society will be too overstimulated to rest in the “old-fashioned” manner of merely lying down, relaxing, and going to sleep. Not only sleep, but also rest, and intoxication, too, will be managed by various pills—far less harmful and far more diverse in their effects than the thousands of tons of alcohol pain-killers and sleeping pills we currently consume every day. The drinking of alcohol will largely have been abandoned (owing to the hangovers it produces) in favor of a hundred different sorts of pills which will make people relax, have pretty dreams, grow talkative, become peacefully quiet, slumber, cat- nap, and so on.
Hunting will be a memory—the forests will have vanished and the remaining game will have been exterminated. Travelers will make the round trip to Mars via space ships, carrying small hydroponic gardens to insure a steady supply of oxygen and to deodorize the air. Several parties of sportsmen-scientists will have been lost on expeditions to Venus.
That old criterion of culture, the bathing suit, for instance, will be worn only for warmth, or to cover scars, or to disguise a bad figure. In fifty more years, nudity will have been reached—and passed! Passed, in favor of such trivial decoration as appeals to the taste and fancy of each individual.
Eating will still be regarded as a pleasure, though the basis of sixty-five per cent of the food consumed will be marine algae, vat-raised yeast protein and starches built up by industrial photosynthesis—all of these flavored with substances derived from the waning petroleum supplies.
Few Americans will have carried the study of reading beyond the length needed for understanding technical instruction. Thus, though music will be abundant and interesting, architecture, painting and sculpture widely admired, and ballet a national fad, reading for pleasure (or to get abstract information) will be exceptional. Cut these articles out, however, (on the chance that your grandchild will still be able to read in A.D. 2000) so he may check their accuracy.
All in all, Wylie’s predictions are perfectly representative of postwar hopes and concerns for the future. Sure, we’ll enjoy our flying cars (or “Buzzcopters”) but at what cost? How many people will be killed and injured as a result of this new technology and will Americans simply accept the human cost as we eventually did with the rise of the automobile? Sure, we’ll have the ability to experience virtual worlds but what kind of side effects will the overstimulation present? Will we even be able to fall asleep at night with such an elevated heart rate?
Last month we looked at Aldous Huxley’s predictions in the same issue of Redbook. Huxley imagined that increased worker productivity would likely mean an increase in wages and more leisure time. Neither of these predictions came true, but one wonders if they had whether any of Wylie’s more radical predictions for the hedonistic society of the future may have come with them.
November 30, 2012
Today advertisers use futuristic tech like jetpacks and robots in their TV ads so that potential consumers think of their brand as forward thinking and innovative. In the 1920s, the cutting edge gadget that advertisers most wanted to associate themselves with was television. But, since the technology was still in its infancy, they faked it.
The August 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine included two illustrations showing ways that businesses could create “fake” television demonstrations to lure customers inside their stores.
The illustration above depicts a bogus TV demo in a store window, divided by a wall. On the left side of the window display, people saw what was meant to look like a TV projector being sent a wireless signal by a woman sitting in the right side of the display. Instead the projection was just a movie made earlier with the same actress, who did her best to mimic the pre-recorded actions.
Another method of creating fake TV broadcasts was to use a series of mirrors. In the illustration below, unneeded wires give the impression that the TV signal is being sent between the two rooms. In reality, mirrors have been strategically set up so that the actress’s image appears on the fake TV set in the next room.
Businesses that couldn’t stage fake TV demonstrations still used television as a theme in their advertisements. The illustration below hung at Martin’s Lunch Room at 15 Wall Street in Norwalk, Connecticut around 1929. The poster’s message was that even though technology is developing at a rapid pace, you can still find great customer service with a human touch at their restaurant.
As we’ve looked at many times before, the idea of TV being a purely broadcast medium (rather than a point-to-point service which today we might call videophone) wasn’t yet a certainty until the late 1940s. In fact, TV had many false starts before it would become a practical reality in American homes after World War II. But fittingly enough, it would be TV itself — along with the dwindling influence of the downtown department store — that would cause advertisers to abandon storefronts, opting instead to promote their wares via commercials. Of course, what was promised in those commercials wasn’t always genuine… but that’s a story for another time.
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?