One of the saddest but surest signs of our intellectual and cultural stagnation over the past few decades is the total lack of imagination in our visions of the future. After the Industrial Revolution and throughout most of the 20th Century, people dreamed of flying cars and spaceships. Science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, and Arthur C. Clarke wrote about concepts that were unthinkable at the time – space flight, radar, nuclear power, artificial intelligence, microprocessors, and so much more – and eventually became reality. Today's visions of the future consist largely of putting an LCD touchscreen on every conceivable surface and object, or incrementally upgrading cellphones and personal computing every few years. That is, when we're not too busy envisioning a future of famine, global climate disasters, and conflict over dwindling and finite natural resources. No, we no longer have the zeitgeist of the Cold War era, when science was a force for good that would make life immeasurably better. Now science exists to make us toys/gizmos/gadgets to make it easier to look at Facebook in public, while trying to mitigate the damage done by the industrialization that made previous generations so excited about the future. What happened to visions of the future that actually excite us?
The only recent invention that really strikes me as a paradigm shifter – and the first since the affordable, practical home computer in the 1980s – is 3D printing. I am the first to admit that I have only a layman's understanding of the process, but it holds the potential to make us rethink the process of turning ideas into physical objects. Of course, there are some pretty alarming implications of the technology as well. Everything else, including the mighty internet and all of the devices that allow us to access it, is merely a means of repackaging information for greater convenience. Has that convenience changed our lives? Certainly. Has it created something fundamentally new? No.
This is starting to veer dangerously close to non-NPF territory. So, um…here's some retro-future stuff for your slow Friday afternoon in the office:
1. Check out this Jetsons-styled behemoth of a home computer offered by Honeywell in the late 1960s. This "kitchen computer" was supposed to offer home cooks access to recipes and other things to better organize the kitchen.
Being massive, massively expensive ($10,600 in 1968), and requiring an (included) two-week programming course just to figure out how to use the damn thing, it was…not a sales success. Sure did look cool, though.
2. Here's a classic short film from that perennial retro-future favorite, Disneyland's Monsanto House of Tomorrow.
The brief second part of the film can be found here. Note that in some form or another, almost every innovation they envisioned in the film is now a part of our daily lives (although moving sinks do not appear to have caught on). Don't overlook the architectural magnificence of the house from the outside either:
3. If you currently work in a tech-related field, perhaps even doing some programming, you are certain to get a kick out of this Bell Labs training video (1973) for newly hired programmers. Be sure to note which counter to go to when you need to have a tape changed in the mainframe.