Brain Pickings

Today Yesterday: 5 Vintage Visions for the Future of Technology

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Instapaper circa 1981, or what medical wonderlands have to do with making cash entirely obsolete.

One of the things that sets our species apart from others is our ability to imagine the future in remarkable detail. We do this every day on a personal level and have been doing it since time immemorial on a cultural level, and do it across the entire spectrum of ludicrous misguidedness and uncanny accuracy. Revisiting these predictions in retrospect can be a source of both fascination and humor. After last week’s vintage versions of modern social media, today we revisit five such predictions for the future of technology, envisioning — with varying degrees of correctness and comedy — everything from the workplace to the wardrobe.

THE OFFICE (1969)

In this fantastic compilation of BBC clips from 1969, James Burke — who brought us the iconic Connections series on the history of innovation — experiences the automated office of the future and what it might mean for the evolution of work culture.

The great thing about machines is that they do what they’re told. They leave you to get on with it. Never late, they’re obedient, they’re never sick, they never disturb you or argue or paint their nails or talk or smile at you or say ‘good morning’ or keep you company. They just leave you alone.”

(I guess Burke never had a brush with push notifications.)

What’s curious about the segment is that even in 1969, long before today’s digital distractions and always-on telecommunication lifestyle were, Burke expresses a frustration with the overwhelming pace of the traditional office and romanticizes the quiet, efficient focus of unitasking, which he laments as a thing of the past.

ELECTRONIC JOURNALISM (1981)

In 1981, long before the Internet as we know it had come of age, early adopters of the home computer were reading their morning newspapers online — kind of. This story by journalist Steve Newman, originally broadcast on San Francisco’s KRON network, expolores what the then-future of digital publishing and electronic journalism could hold.

On the telephone connection between these two terminals is made the newest form of electronic journalism lights up Mr. Howard’s television with just about everything The Examiner prints in its regular edition — that is, with the exception of pictures, ads and the comics.”

(Look familiar?)

CLOTHING (1930s)

In the 1930s, Pathetone Weekly asked leading fashion designers to imagine women’s clothing in the year 2000. From an electric belt that adapts the body to climatic changes to a wedding dress made of glass to an electric headlight “to help her find an honest man,” the Eve of tomorrow has an awful lot in common with Lady Gaga.

As for [the man], if he matters at all, there won’t be any shaving, colors, ties or pockets. He’ll be fitted with a telephone, a radio, and containers for coins, keys and candy for cuties.”

Just about describes your average Brooklyn hipster.

THE HOSPITAL (1950s)

In the 1950s, industrialist Henry Kaiser (of Kaiser Foundation fame) and architect Sydney Garfield partnered on a $2 million project bringing to life a vision for the hospital of the future. From babies sliding through walls to remote-controlled walls, the hospital was “a medical dream come true.”

From the admissions office on, everything is streamlined and expedited. The patient’s record reaches the doctor before he does.”

BANKING (1969)

In 1969, reporter Derek Cooper examined the computing innovations that could revolutionize banking, from credit card machines that would enable the transfer of funds directly from the customer’s account to that of the shop to computerized banks that would reap the benefits of shorter lines and more flexible opening times as customers had their basic needs answered by technology rather than tellers, with a twinge of fear about technology making these mundane jobs obsolete. (Cue in the Orson-Welles-narrated Future Shock.)

The system could eventually make cash entirely redundant, thus eliminating the elaborate security arrangements that are needed to protect it.”

Implicit to this sentiment so laughably naive in light of today’s hacking scandals is history’s proof that we can never anticipate the capacity for evil in the technological good we envision.

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