April 24, 2013
When I was in second grade I made a diorama of a city of the future. This was the early 1990s and the diorama was supposed to represent the year 2000—somehow still lightyears away for a young kid during the George H. W. Bush administration. My little diorama city had cars that ran on a magnetic track, some tall awkwardly-shaped buildings, and a way of recycling rainwater that supposedly (at least in my juvenile mind) was great for the environment.
Children of the 20th century (present bloggers excluded, perhaps) had some fascinating visions for the future. They tended to be pretty optimistic, but each generation betrays its own fears for the world of tomorrow. In the 1960s, kids imagined flying cars and jetpacks, tempered by fears around the Cold War. In the 1970s, kids expected their future to be filled with robot maids and vacations to Mars, but they also worried about violence, the price of gas and skyrocketing unemployment.
In this film from 1983 we hear from American kids about their visions for cities of the future. The kids have constructed and drawn cities that include peoplemovers run by computer, underground shops and even horse-drawn transportation. The end of this clip shows a kid who warns that humanity will be destroyed if we don’t find an alternative to gasoline soon—a fear that made a lot of sense to children of the 1970s and 1980s, but maybe less so to children of the 1960s or 1990s.
What did you envision the world of the future looking like when you were a kid? How do you think the time in which you grew up influenced your outlook?
April 19, 2013
In the 1930s journalists from publications like the New York Times and Time magazine would regularly visit Nikola Tesla at his home on the 20th floor of the Hotel Governor Clinton in Manhattan. There the elderly Tesla would regale them with stories of his early days as an inventor and often opined about what was in store for the future.
Last year we looked at Tesla’s prediction that eugenics and the forced sterilization of criminals and other supposed undesirables would somehow purify the human race by the year 2100. Today we have more from that particular article which appeared in the February 9, 1935, issue of Liberty magazine. The article is unique because it wasn’t conducted as a simple interview like so many of Tesla’s other media appearances from this time, but rather is credited as “by Nikola Tesla, as told to George Sylvester Viereck.”
It’s not clear where this particular article was written, but Tesla’s friendly relationship with Viereck leads me to believe it may not have been at his Manhattan hotel home. Interviews with Tesla at this time would usually occur at the Hotel, but Tesla would sometimes dine with Viereck and his family at Viereck’s home on Riverside Drive, meaning that it’s possible they could have written it there.
Viereck attached himself to many important people of his time, conducting interviews with such notable figures as Albert Einstein, Teddy Roosevelt and even Adolf Hitler. As a German-American living in New York, Viereck was a rather notorious propagandist for the Nazi regime and was tried and imprisoned in 1942 for failing to register with the U.S. government as such. He was released from prison in 1947, a few years after Tesla’s death in 1943. It’s not clear if they had remained friends after the government started to become concerned about Viereck’s activities in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Tesla had interesting theories on religion, science and the nature of humanity which we’ll look at in a future post, but for the time being I’ve pulled some of the more interesting (and often accurate) predictions Tesla had for the future of the world.
Creation of the EPA
The creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was still 35 years away, but Tesla predicted a similar agency’s creation within a hundred years.
Hygiene, physical culture will be recognized branches of education and government. The Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture will be far more important in the cabinet of the President of the United States who holds office in the year 2035 than the Secretary of War. The pollution of our beaches such as exists today around New York City will seem as unthinkable to our children and grandchildren as life without plumbing seems to us. Our water supply will be far more carefully supervised, and only a lunatic will drink unsterilized water.
Education, War and the Newspapers of Tomorrow
Tesla imagined a world where new scientific discoveries, rather than war, would become a priority for humanity.
Today the most civilized countries of the world spend a maximum of their income on war and a minimum on education. The twenty-first century will reverse this order. It will be more glorious to fight against ignorance than to die on the field of battle. The discovery of a new scientific truth will be more important than the squabbles of diplomats. Even the newspapers of our own day are beginning to treat scientific discoveries and the creation of fresh philosophical concepts as news. The newspapers of the twenty-first century will give a mere ” stick ” in the back pages to accounts of crime or political controversies, but will headline on the front pages the proclamation of a new scientific hypothesis.
Health and Diet
Toward the end of Tesla’s life he had developed strange theories about the optimal human diet. He dined on little more than milk and honey in his final days, believing that this was the purest form of food. Tesla lost an enormous amount of weight and was looking quite ghastly by the early 1940s. This meager diet and his gaunt appearance contributed to the common misconception that he was penniless at the end of his life.
More people die or grow sick from polluted water than from coffee, tea, tobacco, and other stimulants. I myself eschew all stimulants. I also practically abstain from meat. I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue. Alcohol, however, will still be used. It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life. The abolition of stimulants will not come about forcibly. It will simply be no longer fashionable to poison the system with harmful ingredients. Bernarr Macfadden has shown how it is possible to provide palatable food based upon natural products such as milk, honey, and wheat. I believe that the food which is served today in his penny restaurants will be the basis of epicurean meals in the smartest banquet halls of the twenty-first century.
There will be enough wheat and wheat products to feed the entire world, including the teeming millions of China and India, now chronically on the verge of starvation. The earth is bountiful, and where her bounty fails, nitrogen drawn from the air will refertilize her womb. I developed a process for this purpose in 1900. It was perfected fourteen years later under the stress of war by German chemists.
Tesla’s work in robotics began in the late 1890s when he patented his remote-controlled boat, an invention that absolutely stunned onlookers at the 1898 Electrical Exhibition at Madison Square Garden.
At present we suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age. The solution of our problems does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.
Innumerable activities still performed by human hands today will be performed by automatons. At this very moment scientists working in the laboratories of American universities are attempting to create what has been described as a ” thinking machine.” I anticipated this development.
I actually constructed ” robots.” Today the robot is an accepted fact, but the principle has not been pushed far enough. In the twenty-first century the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilization. There is no reason at all why most of this should not come to pass in less than a century, freeing mankind to pursue its higher aspirations.
Cheap Energy and the Management of Natural Resources
Long before the next century dawns, systematic reforestation and the scientific management of natural resources will have made an end of all devastating droughts, forest fires, and floods. The universal utilization of water power and its long-distance transmission will supply every household with cheap power and will dispense with the necessity of burning fuel. The struggle for existence being lessened, there should be development along ideal rather than material lines.
Tesla was a visionary whose many contributions to the world are being celebrated today more than ever. And while his idea of the perfect diet may have been a bit strange, he clearly understood many of the things that 21st century Americans would value (like clean air, clean food, and our “thinking machines”) as we stumble into the future.
April 18, 2013
Earlier this week I had the rare opportunity to meet with archivists from Warner Brothers and got a peek at their archive of Jetsons material. As you can imagine, I was in paleofuture nerd heaven.
I shot a segment here in L.A. with “CBS Sunday Morning” (airing
this Sunday April 28th) about the impact of “The Jetsons” on the way that we think about the future in the year 2013. We touched on my recently wrapped project that looked at all 24 episodes of the original series and, aside from being a nervous mess, I think the interview went well! Afterward I was able to travel up to Burbank where Lee Cowan spoke with Sam Register from Warner Brothers animation. They looked at storyboards and talked about some of the tech from the show—some of which has been realized, with many more (as regular Paleofuture readers know) still a fantasy here in the 21st century.
The archivists were kind enough to let me snap a few pictures.
“The Jetsons” TV show was produced by legendary animation studio Hanna-Barbera but its library became part of Turner Broadcasting in 1991 and then became part of Warner Animation when Turner was purchased by Time Warner in 1996.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Warner Brothers archive doesn’t include a single animation cel from the original 1962-63 series (though they had some from the 1980s). As the archivists explained to me, the cels weren’t seen as something worth holding on to after an episode was finished. I suppose since the individual cels weren’t considered to be part of the final product, saving cels must’ve seemed to those midcentury animators at Hanna-Barbera like the equivalent to saving mere tools (like, say pencils).
One archivist explained that in the early 1960s many animation studios even had cel washers that would clean paint completely off the cels when a production was finished because the studios saw the plastic as more valuable than preservation. He said that it wasn’t until Disney started selling the animation cels for dirt cheap in the Disneyland park (maybe $7 a pop) that anyone realized there might be a market for these things after a cartoon or movie was finished.
I took a few photos of sketches from the archive (the most fascinating being the early sketch, below, of Judy looking rather sedate and conservatively dressed), but you can see even more if you tune in to “CBS Sunday Morning” on
April 21st! April 28th!
April 11, 2013
A bright rainbow hangs in the sky, descending just over the horizon. The many people of Earth march slowly toward it, leaving behind the crumbling fist of war, oppression and international borders. Nothing less than the future is over that horizon; a future that is defined by a new world order where people are able to attain true happiness and leave behind the bleak conflicts of the early 20th century.
At least that’s how it was imagined by illustrator Fred Siebel and writer Vincent Sheean in the January, 1950 issue of Redbook magazine.
We may not have the one world government envisioned by Vincent Sheean, but we do have a version of the one-superpower world that he predicted would emerge. His vision left open many possible avenues by which this new world order might be achieved — many that left the United States, the Soviet Union or both in ruins. But however that cold conflict came to an end it would bring the dawning of a new age.
Sheean, writing in 1950:
Whatever shape your world may take in the year 2000 A.D., we can all be fairly sure that it will be one world. Whether through war or through peace, the nations fifty years from now will have learned to enmesh their sovereignties into a single supreme authority. They will have learned to do so because, difficult as it may seem now, no other alternative exists. One world or none at all is the choice.
If we examine the hateful and (to my mind) improbable possibility of war—atomic war between the great powers—we see that one or the other side must be destroyed. The A-bomb, the guided missile, bacteria weapons, make limited wars for limited objectives impossible between great powers. These powers are too powerful, and they have weapons, which once used, would lead into a completely unknowable future. If, however, anything survived, it is certain that one power alone (either the United States or the Soviet Union) would impose its version of world order upon the ruins. That single-power world is profoundly undesirable, because civilization will have been sacrificed to attain it. Barring war then, or a great depression, we can see that the next fifty years offer a tremendous prospect— and challenge. It is a fact that by increasing our production by only a tenth above normal expectations, the U.S. can provide enough to bring every American up to minimum living standards.
But Sheean held out hope that there was indeed reason to be optimistic about the year 2000. Tremendous scientific advancement and wondrous new tech like supersonic planes and a system of advanced highways (the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was still six years away) would allow humanity to achieve its full potential:
Vast advances in technology and science should let us insure our people against sickness, unemployment and the hazards of old age; lace the nation with 200-m.p.h., triple-tier highways and fill the skies with more comfortable, faster, perhaps supersonic air transports; build churches, schools, art galleries, lecture halls, libraries for everyone. Certainly power by nuclear fission will accelerate the most productive economic machine in world history. Nations will no longer be driven by hunger to overwork their soil and pillage other natural resources.
Thus, it is conceivable that we will have the time and the energies to attain the greatest of all goals — happiness — with values in art, music, culture, craftsmanship, intellect, and above all, in human relations. Without resolution of this issue—human relations on a world scale—productivity will mean little, for it will be devoted to only one ultimate weapon after another.
It seems to me that no atomic war will occur. We shall, indeed, work our way slowly, with much difficulty, through successive phases of “cold war” and uneasy peace arrangements, toward a world authority strong enough to establish and keep international order. This has been a dream for many men through the centuries. It now becomes a political necessity, the means of survival.
Sheean also argued that national sovereignty would become an antiquated notion.
This trend toward world authority will be contested bitterly for many years, because national sovereignty is something all men cling to. But sooner or later a number of overwhelming questions will impose themselves on everybody who thinks at all. Questions like these: Is national sovereignty more important than society itself? Is civilization not something bigger than either the nation or the society? When these questions are asked, over and over and over again, the tendency toward World Agreement, already strong in some areas, will become, I believe, irresistible.
Inspection and regulation of atomic energy enterprises will be established. World agreement, at top levels, will be achieved in a “crisis” — such as Berlin, Greece, or in southeast Asia — and we will have a pattern upon which, with many a failure and many a discouraging rebuff, men of good will will slowly build up and strengthen a world authority. Societies will continue to be different; nations will keep their identities in every respect, except the freedom to murder each other.
This one world government, Sheean writes, would not come without considerable debate. Americans in particular, he argues would be incredibly resistant to the idea of this transition.
The social and economic aspects of this slowly evolving process are very hard for any American, especially a Congressman, to contemplate. Whether our road lies through peace or through war, it is going to cost billions of dollars. There will be helpful factors: split-second communications, world-wide walkie-talkies perhaps, transocean facsimile newspapers, an international language, which would be of enormous aid in surmounting international barriers. There will be a helpful atmosphere, one freer of worry over cancer, tuberculosis and polio. Most important, there will be a constantly growing realization of the imperative need for a common brotherhood of man.
I dare guess that it will be peace, dangerous and difficult peace, leading at long last to a world authority for the government of international relations by controlled disarmament.
Controlled disarmament of the world is obviously far from a reality today. But thanks to the technological growth of the second half of the 20th century, it’s hard to argue that—despite the continued existence of very distinct national borders—we’re anything but a smaller world here in the 21st.
War, well that’s another thing entirely.
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.