NPF: TOMORROWLAND

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.

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33 Responses to “NPF: TOMORROWLAND”

  1. LK Says:

    In the 40's and 50's (the early "golden age" of SciFi) the world seemed technologically stable, or in a linear advance curve at most. People wanted to invent big ideas, to break this "stagnation" or "slow advance". The genre (both in prose and in movies) was rather young, and writers had to use bold strokes and vivid colors to attract attention to their ideas.

    But the real focus of SciFi was always on the human condition, and what we can say about how humans behave in our current world through the lens of a "foreign future". Now that the rate of (technology) change has accelerated to the point where everyone notices it, and "disruptive technology" is the buzzword-du-jour in the hi-tech industry, you don't need to convince anyone that the world can be different. They expect it to get different. And once the genre has matured, and is a more accepted part of the literary world, writers can be more subtle and insinuating in their creations.

    I think the main difference is that now the focus (both of the industry and of the writers) is more on dealing with personal lives, rather than on the "big stuff" that costs everyone, but affects everyone. Fifty years ago you could talk about space travel and eyes would light up around you. Today people care a lot less about those communal issues, and more about their own belly-buttons (wearable computing? How about body-embedded computing?). I don't think this is due to lack of imagination or "cultural stagnation", but this is (again) veering dangerously close to non-NPF territory, as you said, so I'll drop it here.

  2. Patrick Says:

    I don't think that you've been reading the right stuff, Ed. Remember that modern(IC) computers were invented in the 60s but didn't really have their renaissance until almost 30 years later. Two technologies that I see which have a ton of potential are the FPGA and whole genome sequencing. Both of these technologies were invented in the 80s and both have been improving at exponential rates.(a la Moore's Law for traditional computers).

    I think that both have a lot of potential to change things pretty dramatically in the next 10-20 years. FPGAs will allow self-modifying computer hardware. Whole genome sequencing may change much about how we construct our identities. Both have numerous applications, they're just not quite ready to blossom yet.

    I might add low cost commercial spaceflight to the list too, but while the improvements have been steady, the rate has been much more modest.

  3. wetcasements Says:

    Ed, have you ever read Charles Stross? You'd really like Charles Stross.

  4. Middle Seaman Says:

    Science didn't follow A.C Clarke or Ray Bradburry. Science followed Einstein and Watson/Crick. Practical innovations followed the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford. A huge boost to everything was given by the vision of FDR who made everyone optimistic.

    Today we can print replacement skin, genetically modify organisms (the opposition will lose) and machine leaning has made huge progress. Speech recognition is at hand and most physicians in the US are moving to electronic records. AIDS can be stopped, treatment of cancer vastly improved.

    We do feel the country's decline. It's both economic and social. This affects our mood and our enthusiasm. We have two in a row 8 years presidents who embarrass us in their rejection of our social and intellectual need. Science, however, is doing well with declining funds.

  5. Brizer Says:

    A combination of neuroscience and high speed computing. Imagine the Google glass project that does not require the visor. A small camera embedded within the eye or the surrounding area send a video feed to either a small embedded processor in the skull or a high speed wireless device that transmits that feed to an off-site processor. The feed is scanned and relevant information is fed back to the optic nerve and overlaid onto the person's field of view. The type and amount of information being viewed can be controlled remotely with thoughts alone. We already have the technology to pick up and decipher brain waves and control objects:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/tan_le_a_headset_that_reads_your_brainwaves.html

    The only thing I haven't seen (at least in the rudimentary form) is the interface with the optic nerve. As a previous post stated you probably aren't looking in the right places, Things are going to get weird. Awesomely weird.

  6. Talisker Says:

    The flip side of shiny optimistic Cold War SF was the "oh shit, we're all going to die in a nuclear war" scenario, which had a pretty strong grip on everyone. SF writers of the time might have wanted a contrast to this kind of despair — for instance, I think the creators of Star Trek have said this was more or less their intention. Of course, some other writers just ran with it and created the post-apocalyptic subgenre, in which our civilization is destroyed by nuclear holocaust, aliens, Triffids, zombies, or whatever.

    Now that the threat of all-out nuclear war has mercifully receded, and (as LK says) the SF field has had some time to mature, writers can afford to be a little more nuanced.

    I second the recommendation of Charles Stross, his blog is quite excellent.

  7. c u n d gulag Says:

    I don't think too much about the future – after all, I'm 54 years old, a pessimist, and have already handled a bunch of change.
    Good, AND bad.
    And, seeing how people drive cars on roads, their ineptiture, and the road rage involved, the last thing I want to see, is flying cars. ZOINKS!

    And besides, there will come a time soon when some enterprising scientist somewhere, working on molecular modification via nanotechnology, trying to engineer artificial oil for the worlds growing energy needs, will slip up, and accidentally turn every living thing on this planet in a few short days into part of a somewhat different version of "The Emersonian Oversoul" – we'll all be part of 'The Great Earth Over-goo.'
    And alien life forms will avoid this planet full of nothing but H2O, mineral rock, and goo.
    Unless, that is, their spaceships run on goo (because, what, after all, is oil?), in which case, we'll be a filling station for them on their way to planets with real intelligent life forms.
    Very unlikely, though – if they can can travel through space, what advanced civilization could possibly still continue to run on goo?

  8. Talisker Says:

    @c u n d gulag: Charles Stross has said something to the effect of, "Your own flying car sounds like a great idea. Your neighbour's 17-year-old son's, not so much."

    Although it can't be ruled out, the "grey goo" scenario is considered pretty unlikely. Eric Drexler, who originally proposed the term, has more recently done his best to play it down. The "runaway climate change" situation is altogether more plausible, but we all knew that anyway…

  9. zebbidie Says:

    Seth Sentry from Melbourne

    Dear Science, where's my hoverboard?

  10. Mr. Prosser Says:

    I would suggest you read William Gibson. Even though his cyberpunk technology is dated, his sociological outlook is dead on, particularly in his Bridge trilogy and latest Pattern Recognition trilogy.

  11. Misterben Says:

    I have to echo some of the other comments here. I think a big part of the reason we no longer entertain ourselves with techno-grandiose visions of the future is that we've been confronted with the stark reality that our industrial civilization could actually destroy us and the planet we live on. "We'll all go to space!" said the scifi writer of the 1940s. "…we might not have any choice," we reply grimly.

    But I think that's not the only part. I think the other part of why pur perception of technology and the future has changed, is that we're doing different things with it now. The 1940s-1960s were marked by all sorts of large-scale public engineering projects. Dams, highway systems, going to space – I imagine this had a very positive and exciting impact on the nation's psyche. Now, like Ed said, we get new cell phones and the opportunity to throw out all our movies and buy them again every few years.

    All that being said, I do think there are awesome technological innovations on the horizon that would be extremely compelling. Genetics, man/machine interface, stuff like that. But I don't think we're going to get there.

  12. oiojes Says:

    I think general malaise is infecting your thinking. The optimism regarding technology back in the 50s and 60s reflected an optimism about their world, not science. And there were detractors. Read Philip Wyllie's Triumph, for example. Talk about a false victory: nothing left of the USA. Or On the Beach. Nothing left at all.

    Vernor Vinge's work still has that optimistic bent though tinged with a little bit of cynicism. But we're all so tinged so why should that be a surprise?

    And if you go further back to the work Upton Sinclair or Sinclair Lewis you see real dystopia. Of course, the reason they wrote those works was to shine the light on bad things. This suggests that they thought it would matter– optimism of a sort. And we think the same. The problem is the light is fleeting at best and under control by the unscrupulous.

    Even Twain wasn't very optimistic. The best hope he could put in Huck Finn was an ignorant sixteen year old boy and a runaway slave. Everyone else in the book was either evil or comically stupid. Well, not everyone but nearly.

    I think the optimism you're talking about back then was fleeting and anomalous. We're back in the real world, baby. Where things go boom and the fingers on the button are nasty.

  13. anotherbozo Says:

    They were onto something when they elevated the Monsanto house, given the rising oceans. OTOH, homes-on-wheels should be a big item as the coastline recedes and we have to move ever more inland.

    Oops, sorry, I should be positive here. As David Deutsch suggests, scientists find a way to tilt the earth ever-so-slightly on its axis to counteract global warming and we correct the warming problem. Then I see so much else resting on our moral deficiencies as a species that everything else will have to wait until we've solved war and the global inequalities that indirectly sustain it. On the subject of a utopian future, even William Irwin Thompson, my favorite visionary, has turned sour recently.

  14. Jon Says:

    Also, give Neil Stephenson a try for big ideas. Anathem was pretty grandiose.

  15. greennotGreen Says:

    I suspect Monsanto didn't have any women on their design team. Or anyone who actually cooked. Why would a cook want to wait for three separate "cold zones" to lower so one could pull out ingredients instead of just opening one fridge door? And washing and storing your dishes in the same place is great…if you have only very few dishes. Monsanto's not going to sell very many plastic dishes that way! And what do you do with one dirty dish? Put it back in the dishwasher/storage area and wash the whole lot again?

  16. Jane Says:

    3D scanning of anything plus 3D printing of that object may well change lots of things. I'd like to copy a ring my sister owns…More of the creative class may find it hard to get paid.

    DIY biology can also change things quite a bit.

    There is a huge amount of change coming, and it won't all be climate change.

    It can even be a bit FUN!

  17. Andrew Laurence Says:

    Perhaps someone who writes a blog shouldn't criticize computers and the internet quite so much? :-)

    It really breaks down to us having made more process in computing and telecommunications and less progress in transportation and space exploration than the pundits of the 50s and 60s predicted. It's not like we haven't made progress at all.

    Computer and telecommunication technology makes it possible to borrow library books at midnight from my recliner for free and read them on the Kindle reader on my iPad. I find that hard to dislike. Also, porn.

  18. Aaron Weber Says:

    I was going to suggest "The Diamond Age" for Neal Stephenson. Or Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars for a space travel plus progressive economics lesson (Corporate interests vs. communal scientist living on Mars). And yeah, Charles Stross- just read the Lobsters story.

  19. Chicagojon Says:

    Man those are some sexy malamine countertops.

    IDK, this seems a bit like a 'the Greatest Generation' post to me and ignores some obvious every day non-internet technological improvements that are changing peoples lives and will change the world. Even if they are incremental, it's not inconsequential that technology improvements in every day construction and flat-world freedom of movement is effecting the lives of billions (off the top of my head):

    –The worlds largest port was built in the last 10 years (Yangshan port off the coast of Shanghai)
    –The worlds largest dam was made fully operational this year (Three Gorges Dam)
    –High speed rail has reduced the travel time from Beijing to Shenzhen from 22 hours to 8 –High speed rail also traverses the worlds longest bridge (okay, it's kinda an aqueduct)
    –Genetic research isn't exactly floundering
    –I hear many complaints about the good old days of airline travel with comfy seats, attractive/helpful attendants, redeemable miles, cheap fares, etc. but the reality is that air travel is much more accessible and cheaper than its ever been and will only become more so with the efficiencies of the A380 and 787 dreamliner. These are good things for individuals, the world, and the potential of new technology.

    I don't recall Arthur C Clarke writing about South Korean scientists reinventing our concept of biology and medicine through genetic manipulation…but it's gonna happen.

    Also – printable guns are a reality. The linked article says "Some gun experts seem skeptical that a plastic gun could fire more than one shot, if at all, before failing." but that's bullshit and is disproven with 5 minutes of googling.

  20. mel in oregon Says:

    the threat of nuclear war hasn't receded just because kids don't get under their desks in school anymore. neither has the probablity that a good many people will starve to death as less land is available for farming as the world population accelerates. a good part of the reason technology was looked upon much more favorably a half century ago was the times were so much different. americans had gone through the depression & ww2, & now most white people were living far better than they ever had. they thought, "the sky is the limit". but today is different, for the first time in 80 or so years, we no longer think life will be better for our kids, grandchildren etc. the great technology of the past such as phones, refrigerators, cars, central heating & indoor plumbling all came out decades ago. today some of the younger generation with very little math or physics background think distant space travel will soon be a reality. nope, mars will be about it for quite a while. why? first, humans aren't built for space travel. going 500 mph might take 5 million years to reach nearby stars. going a significant fraction of the speed of light disregards the overwhelming cost of the technology. a far more difficult problem would be all the comets, asteroids & other space material that going so fast gives the computer "pilot" no time to react to. no, if we ever got serious about solving the problems facing we humans, life might return to the times when people were optimistic about our future.

  21. Scepticus Says:

    The Bell Labs training video link seems to be broken. (Doesn't work for me, anyway.)

  22. Quaestor Says:

    The switch to a dystopian view of the future, at least in the movies, occurred around 1970. Before that, Buck Rogers, etc. After that, Soylent Green, Mad Max, etc.

  23. Xecky Gilchrist Says:

    Someone cleverer than I, possibly the Long Now folks, pointed out that one possible reason for the diminishing forward-looking in our culture was that the year 2000 got to be closer and closer to present day, and people have a tendency to hang their predictions off a Nice Round Number year.

    I think there's some truth to that. When I was a kid in 1970, you still had some of the "everybody will live in space" kind of futurism going on, but by 1999 it had deflated down to "we will all have cell phones with which we'll do day-trading as we drive our SUVs!"

  24. mothra Says:

    As David Deutsch suggests, scientists find a way to tilt the earth ever-so-slightly on its axis to counteract global warming and we correct the warming problem.

    But…won't all the people on one side fall off? That's a TERRIBLE solution!!

    What I love about that kitchen computer ad is the lady's dress. They don't make them like that any more.

    Monsanto House of the Future? Too rich. Yep. Monsanto certainly had and does have the future in their greedy mitts.

  25. Xynzee Says:

    Echoing Mr.Prosser
    I've always found Gibson rather prescient. Where the greater bulk of humanity won't be lifted from the morass we're in. Much of what he tries to explore are people seeking and striving for a sense of humanity against a back drop of the social Darwinist experiment of the last 50 yrs. that returns us to a pre-revolutionary Europe, only w cooler tech.
    This returned to theme of "what makes us human", is an important concept especially in light that we are on a cusp of new changes. I look at the future of cybernetics and genetic manipulation w/ some trepidation. When it's the conceptual of the $6m Man, v the future of Replicants "More human than human" reality…
    How many creative geniuses will we mistakenly prevent in our genetic manipulation? By eliminating bi-polar where in a manic phase great creativity can occur, unfortunately for the individual and their families the cost can be tremendous and there's no guarantee they'll produce like Mozart. "The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long."

    So yes, a far more nuanced literary themes.

    What ever happened to all the poor on Earth in Star Trek? Perhaps space exploration was the answer. The requirements of a interstellar navy… Though I think Next Gen tried to explore this in an episode of a planet starting to reach for the stars.

  26. Major Kong Says:

    I think about this every time I'm plodding along at .80 mach, actually slower than what the 707 cruised at. I thought we were supposed to be flying SSTs at mach 4 by now.

  27. Greydog Says:

    yep, the Bell Labs video is 404.

  28. jon Says:

    Going to space became boring, and the best stuff is done by robots. But a space elevator could change that, if not for the fact that the best Equatorial locations aren't generally too friendly making them unsuitable for hundreds of billions of dollars worth of investments. (And we can't imagine a Brazilian space station, can we?)

    Driving in two dimensions is hard enough for most people, so I'll go ahead and join the chorus of those who don't want to worry about a crash landing on my roof.

    But I do see things such as the tiny house movement, LED lighting, solar, composting toilets, off-grid possibilities, local gardening and others as a way for the survivalists to move into suburbia. Add working from home to that mix, along with enough rainfall harvesting, and you could have a self-sufficient lunatic who never has to leave an eleven-hundred-square-foot lot. The amount of inefficiency in our lives is tremendous, and that's the thing that's going to be what saves America from the Peak Oil crisis James Kunstler warns us about: we're so wasteful, we can afford to cut back.

    The future is boring, now that Americans have more food, clothing, shelter, and all the rest than we'll ever need (never mind the homeless or poor, as… we'll, just never mind them.) That's why the future belongs to the Third World. They're the dreamers, while we're mostly just asleep. We'll find out how wrong we are. And we'll start dreaming again soon enough. That, or we'll learn more Korean than Gangham Style lyrics.

  29. jon Says:

    (Korea isn't really Third World by most measures, but they're foreign to us. Not as foreign to all of us as they are to Bill O'Reilly, but still foreign.)

  30. Surly Duff Says:

    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.

    Wrong. You are completely discounting the transformation our society has undergone as a result of the Segway. Now, people can participate in tours of U.S. cities without walking or riding one of those ridiculous duck tours. Visiting a town without engaging in physical activity has never been so easy! I can even eat a double bacon cheeseburger while I see the Washington Monument!

  31. HoosierPoli Says:

    We don't imagine the future because we're too busy making it.

    Also, read more science fiction.

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