Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Domed, Evenly Climatized Cities of 2008

The fine folks at Modern Mechanix (one of the best things on the Internet, in my opinion, with its impressive archive of old science articles and other miscellany) bring to us this week a 1968 Mechanix Illustrated piece entitled 40 Years in the Future, by someone named James Berry.

I love this kind of thing. It's fun to see what they got right, and what they got wrong.

Probably the most accurate stuff in the entire piece had to do with commerce and/or money. I wonder why? For instance:

Computers not only keep track of money, they make spending it easier. TV-telephone shopping is common. To shop, you simply press the numbered code of a giant shopping center. You press another combination to zero in on the department and the merchandise in which you are interested. When you see what you want, you press a number that signifies “buy,” and the household computer takes over, places the order, notifies the store of the home address and subtracts the purchase price from your bank balance. Much of the family shopping is done this way. Instead of being jostled by crowds, shoppers electronically browse through the merchandise of any number of stores.

(I especially like the term "TV-telephone" -- that's a pretty darn fine description of how a goodly number of people use the Internet.)

And this:

Computers also handle travel reservations, relay telephone messages, keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, compute taxes and even figure the monthly bills for electricity, water, telephone and other utilities.

(But what they didn't predict was that people would have computers capable of doing this stuff that you could fit in your pocket!)

The predictions about media and education were somewhat more marginal. They did pick up on the whole "instantaneous information availability" thing, however, they seemed fixated on things called "TV tapes" and seemed to expect that in 2008 we'd all still have to trek to the library to access media (though to be fair, this is certainly true for people who can't afford computers, and yes, such people do actually exist -- as do people who don't have flush toilets, just to keep everyone grounded here).

Also, while "distance learning" classes are actually real, they are far from the most common means of achieving formal schooling, particularly for children. I guess the people predicting computerized classes for youngsters neglected to note that the primary purpose of school is, in fact, as Paul Graham notes, "...to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done."

In fact most schooling—from first grade through college—consists of programmed TV courses or lectures via closed circuit. Students visit a campus once or twice a week for personal consultations or for lab work that has to be done on site. Progress of each student is followed by computer, which assigns end term marks on the basis of tests given throughout the term. Besides school lessons, other educational material is available for TV viewing. You simply press a combination of buttons and the pages flash on your home screen. The world’s information is available to you almost instantaneously...

Best-selling books are on TV tape and can be borrowed or rented from tape libraries.

They also accurately predicted microwave ovens and disposable dinnerware (it seems like a lot of people in the 50s and 60s were obsessed with being able to throw things away...what was up with that?), but apparently not the fall into disfavor of the word "housewife" (or the notion that women might not always be relegated to kitchen duty...even in Really High Tech kitchens):

The housewife simply determines in advance her menus for the week, then slips prepackaged meals into the freezer and lets the automatic food utility do the rest. At preset times, each meal slides into the microwave oven and is cooked or thawed. The meal then is served on disposable plastic plates. These plates, as well as knives, forks and spoons of the same material, are so inexpensive they can be discarded after use.

And then we have the stuff that manages to be funny, telling, and wrong all at once:

The car accelerates to 150 mph in the city’s suburbs, then hits 250 mph in less built-up areas, gliding over the smooth plastic road. You whizz past a string of cities, many of them covered by the new domes that keep them evenly climatized year round. Traffic is heavy, typically, but there’s no need to worry. The traffic computer, which feeds and receives signals to and from all cars in transit between cities, keeps vehicles at least 50 yds. apart. There hasn’t been an accident since the system was inaugurated.

Oh, if only we had awesome fast self-driving hovercars and No Accidents! That's something I'd love to see, but that would require a massive change in infrastructure -- one that I don't see on the horizon anytime soon. I'm not sure about the whole "dome covered cities" thing, though...what is this, Logan's Run?

The average work day is about four hours.

(Ha! Ha ha ha. Ahem. No. Just no.)

Go read the whole article yourself, though...it's quite a find!


Joshua said...

Yeah, why has the work day not decreased? Is there actually more work to do, or does the constant drive for maximum employment cause us to create 8 hours of some kind of work?

I wonder what molecular manufacturing will do to the workday then.

AnneC said...

If molecular manufacturing does come about at some point, my guess is that it won't affect the length of the work day at all. I don't think the work day is set by what technologies exist so much as by what socioeconomic/cultural climate exists. If people feel like they have to work long hours in order to feel like they're doing something, they will most assuredly find things to do!

jfehlinger said...

There was a lot of corporate futurism in the 60's that's
fun to watch today. Probably the biggest example (and the
best known from my own childhood) was the whole General Motors
Futurama II exhibit at the '64-'65 New York World's Fair
(successor to the Futurama exhibit at the '39 NYWF, but that
was before my time ;-> ). Something of an embarrassment to
the company these days, no doubt, which might have something
to do with the fact that footage and pix of Futurama II are
a bit hard to come by ("I believe in lasers in the jungle,
lasers in the jungle somewhere. . .").

Mark Plus posted a clip from such a film last year:

(turns out I got the actress and narrator right, at least
according to the inquiry I found at
http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=328006 ).

Paleo-Future posted another clip from this film more recently:

(and the complete movie is now available on DVD).

Of course, the whole cultural milieu of this kind of thing is
what dates most tellingly -- e.g., the implied sexism in the
scene where Mom shops "on-line" and Dad gets the bills.

> [T]hey seemed fixated on things called "TV tapes" and seemed
> to expect that in 2008 we'd all still have to trek to the library
> to access media. . .

Ted Nelson, who is credited by some as having invented, or
at least defined, the notion of "hypertext" as we know and love
it today, in his projected "Xanadu" system, imagines that
people would have to get in the car and drive to something
similar to a McDonald's franchise in order to access (hyper)media,
and that it would be a pay-as-you-go affair. This was
in the mid-70s.

Nelson to this day (or at least to the last point I saw him
write or talk about it, sometime in the late 90's/early 00's)
still doesn't like the Web as we have it -- he harrumphs that
his own system would've been the best bet (proprietary, of course;
it would keep links always up-to-date and make sure all the
copyright holders got paid :-/ ).

Clay Shirky, in "In Praise of Evolvable Systems"
makes a pretty plausible case for why Xanadu could never have
got off the ground (though he doesn't mention N. and X. explicitly).

Joshua said...

Is it justifiable for people to be work that doesn't actually produce anything? If Person A didn't actually contribute any more than Person B, but still worked longer, why do they deserve more?

Joshua said...

That should read 'to be paid for work that...' Sorry.

Mark Plus said...

Joshua, America has remained riddled with mostly pointless work for political and social reasons, not because technology has somehow failed us. Read, for example, Bob Black's essay "The Abolition of Work."

jfehlinger said...

> That doesn't mean we have to stop doing things. It does
> mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other
> words, a ludic conviviality. . .

Ah, the Culture. Diziet Sma, take me away. Where's my

jfehlinger said...

> The enthusiastic technophiles -- Saint-Simon,
> Comte, Lenin, B. F. Skinner -- have always
> been unabashed authoritarians also; which is
> to say, technocrats. We should be more than
> sceptical about the promises of the computer
> mystics. They work like dogs; chances are,
> if they have their way, so will the rest of
> us. But if they have any particularized
> contributions more readily subordinated to
> human purposes than the run of high tech,
> let's give them a hearing.


jfehlinger said...

I would live all my life in nonchalance and
insouciance/Were it not for making a living,
which is rather a nousiance.

-- Ogden Nash

jfehlinger said...

"Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is
exploited. It is essentially an automated
civilization in its manufacturing processes,
with human labor restricted to something
indistinguishable from play, or a hobby.

No machine is exploited, either; the idea
here being that any job can be automated in
such a way as to ensure that it can be done
by a machine well below the level of potential
consciousness; what to us would be a stunningly
sophisticated computer running a factory
(for example) would be looked on by the Culture's
AIs as a glorified calculator, and no more
exploited than an insect is exploited when
it pollinates a fruit tree a human later eats
a fruit from.

Where intelligent supervision of a
manufacturing or maintenance operation is
required, the intellectual challenge involved
(and the relative lightness of the effort
required) would make such supervision rewarding
and enjoyable, whether for human or machine.
The precise degree of supervision required
can be adjusted to a level which satisfies
the demand for it arising from the nature
of the civilization's members. People - and,
I'd argue, the sort of conscious machines
which would happily cooperate with them - hate
to feel exploited, but they also hate to
feel useless. One of the most important tasks
in setting up and running a stable and internally
content civilization is finding an acceptable
balance between the desire for freedom of choice
in one's actions (and the freedom from mortal
fear in one's life) and the need to feel that
even in a society so self-correctingly Utopian
one is still contributing something. Philosophy
matters, here, and sound education."

-- Iain M. Banks, "A Few Notes on the Culture"

AnneC said...

jfehlinger said: Of course, the whole cultural milieu of this kind of thing is what dates most tellingly -- e.g., the implied sexism in the scene where Mom shops "on-line" and Dad gets the bills.

To me this sort of thing -- the failure of many manifestations of "futurism" to even approach accurate predictions of social change -- is absolutely key for anyone who fancies himself or herself a techno-prophet to keep in mind.

You said: Clay Shirky, in "In Praise of Evolvable Systems" http://www.shirky.com/writings/evolve.html makes a pretty plausible case for why Xanadu could never have got off the ground (though he doesn't mention N. and X. explicitly).

Huh...that's quite an interesting article. Seems like it probably has wider-ranging applicability, from a philosophical standpoint, than just information-management systems (at least by analogy). A while back I wrote something about how "utopian" scenarios (particularly those entailing some form of eugenics, whether or not it's being explicitly called "eugenics") seem to me to suffer from precisely the same short-sightedness and disregard for the actualities of messy reality that planners of "gated communities" do. Something created according to someone's idea of perfection and "universal" relevance/applicability is fundamentally a stagnant something, and a non-sustainable something as well. It boggles me that people keep trying over and over again to plan out such things.

AFIAC, "imperfection" is actually a feature, not a bug!

jfehlinger said...

> AFIAC, "imperfection" is actually a feature, not a bug!

There's a tangentially-related, and very amusing, article
at Joel Spolsky's Web site -- "Martian Headsets":