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.
October 28, 2011
As a kid in 1995, I remember going to Target to check out the latest and greatest in video game technology. I had read all about Nintendo’s new console, the Virtual Boy, in the gaming magazines that I was so enamored with at the time. The Virtual Boy had just hit the market that summer and I was lusting after one. It was a peculiar looking little unit: an unwieldy red and black headset that would cover your eyes and ostensibly transport you to other worlds. I peered into the display model and saw a familiar character, Mario (of “Brothers” fame), holding a tennis racquet. I don’t remember much about how the game played, but I do remember hating it and being quite disappointed.
In the 1990s, virtual reality offered the promise of a completely immersive experience—not just for games, but for completely reshaping the way we viewed the world. There were predictions that virtual reality would allow us to see inside things that it would be impossible for humans to otherwise venture into; allowing researchers to explore the human body or students to visit the bottom of the ocean floor. There were promises that we would one day never need leave our homes, for the world would be brought to us.
The January 1991 issue of Omni magazine includes an interview with Jaron Lanier, a man known in some circles as the father of virtual reality. The article paints Lanier as a man of vision, enthusiasm, and purpose, if a bit of an eccentric: “The Pied Piper of a growing technological cult, Lanier has many of the trappings of a young rock star: the nocturnal activity, attention-getting hair, incessant demands on his time.”
Lanier’s enthusiasm for the potential applications of this new technology jumps off the page. Interesting then, that Lanier’s 2010 book, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, strikes a slightly different tone, warning in many ways that technology may be building us into a corner from which we can’t escape. Lanier’s manifesto could be viewed as techno-reactionary, but it’s a special brand of reactionary thinking that comes into sharper focus when you read his Omni interview more closely. Back in 1991, Lanier explains that he ultimately wants his technology to open as many doors as possible; an ever-expansive tool for humanity that transcends the physical world:
As babies, each of us has an astonishing liquid infinity of imagination on the inside; that butts up against the stark reality of the physical world. That the baby’s imagination cannot be realized is a fundamental indignity that we only learn to live with when we decide to call ourselves adults. With virtual reality you have a world with many of the qualities of the physical world, but it doesn’t resist us. It release us from the taboo against infinite possibilities. That’s the reason virtual reality electrifies people so much.
While anyone with even a cursory knowledge of sci-fi movies of the 1990s (such as The Lawnmower Man) probably understands the fundamental cliches of virtual reality, it seems interesting that in 1991 the technology still needed to be explained in some detail. Lanier, for instance, describes how virtual reality’s “computerized clothing” works:
The goggles put a small TV in front of each eye so you see moving images in three dimensions. That’s only the beginning. There is one key trick that makes VR work: The goggles have a sensor allowing a computer to tell where your head is facing. What you see is created completely by the computer, which generates a new image every twentieth of a second. When you move your head to the left, the computer uses that information to shift the scene that you see to the right to compensate. This creates the illusion that your head is moving freely in a stationary space. If you put on a glove and hold your hand in front of your face, you see a computer-generated hand in the virtual world. If you wiggle your fingers, you see its fingers wiggle. The glove allows you to reach out and pick up an artificial object, say a ball, and throw it. Your ears are covered with earphones. The computer can process sounds, either synthesized or natural, so that they seem to come from a particular direction. If you see a virtual fly buzzing around, that fly will actually sound as though it’s coming from the right direction. We also make a full-body suit, a DataSuit, but you can just have a flying head, which isn’t really so bad. The hands and head are the business ends of the body — they interact most with the outside world. If you wear just goggles and gloves, you can do most of the stuff you want in the virtual world.
While I certainly don’t agree with every point Lanier makes in You Are Not a Gadget, I consider it essential reading. Unlike other techno-reactionary books of the last few years—such as Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur or Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation—Lanier doesn’t seem to wish to turn back the clock. He still believes in the potential of high technology to do positive things, he just asks readers to take a step back and consider what a more humanistic version of our technologies might look like.