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27 SEPTEMBER, 2011

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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26 SEPTEMBER, 2011

7 Nonfiction Children’s Books Blending Whimsy and Education

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From typography to tsunamis by way of quantum physics, or what Langston Hughes has to do with LEGO.

Artful and fanciful children’s books make frequent cameos around here. Part of what makes them so great is their ability to whisk the young reader away into an alternate reality full of whimsy and possibility. But the present reality is often full of so much fascination we need not escape it to have our curiosity and imagination tickled. We’ve previously seen how comic books can be a medium for nonfiction, and today we turn to 7 wonderful kind-of-children’s books that bring imaginative storytelling to real, and in many cases serious, issues for young minds to ponder.

GRAPHIC DESIGN FOR KIDS

Graphic Design for Kids, part of the excellent Design Dossier series by Pamela Pease, introduces kids to the wonderful world of graphic design, from its history to its problem-solving and critical thinking methods, spanning a wide spectrum of visual elements and design mediums — shape, color, size and typography; posters, books and websites — to demonstrate design’s role in everyday life, exploring how people use words, pictures, and symbols to deliver and digest messages. The interactive, spiral-bound volume includes profiles of iconic designers, with flash cards featuring pithy insights on their craft, brimming with die-cuts, pull-outs and other treats that only analog books can offer.

Images via Imprint

THE FIRST BOOK OF JAZZ

Prolific poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes is considered one of the fathers of jazz poetry, a literary art form that emerged in the 1920s and eventually became the foundation for modern hip-hop. In 1954, he set out to educate young readers about the culture he so loved. The First Book of Jazz, which you might recall as one of our favorite children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, became the first-ever children’s book to review American music, and to this day arguably the best.

Hughes covered every notable aspect of jazz, from the evolution of its eras to its most celebrated icons to its geography and sub-genres, and made a special point of highlighting the essential role of African-American musicians in the genre’s coming of age. Even his discussion of the technical aspects of jazz — rhythm, percussion, improvisation, syncopation, blue notes, harmony — is so eloquent and engaging that, rather than overwhelming the young reader, it embodies the genuine joy of playing.

Alongside the book, Hughes released a companion record, The Story of Jazz, featuring Hughes’ lively, vivid narration of jazz history in three tracks, each focusing on a distinct element of the genre. You can here them here.

THE SERIF FAIRY

From our friends at Mark Batty comes The Serif Fairy — a charming book for type geeks and their progeny, which follows The Serif Fairy as she hunts for her lost wing across and airy, meticulously designed typographic landscape. She wanders through Garamond Forest, the Zentenar Gate, the Futura City, and Shelley Lake, where she falling into the water to find her lost wing, then rises to the air revived and full of magic again.

It’s an archetypal story of quest and belonging, told through a unique vehicle that educates and entertains at the same time, letting children learn about typography without realizing they are. Originally conceived in German by writer and graphic designer Rene Siegfried, the story’s sensitively English translation by Joel Mann takes nothing away from its poetic fable-like quality.

The book won the 2007 Type Director’s Club award for best children’s book.

HT @Lissa Rhys; images courtesy of Mark Batty Publisher

SEASONS

Seasons by French artist Blexbolex, which you might recall, is a more meditative and abstract than the other books in this omnibus, but no less profound and stimulating for the young reader. With his signature retro-inspired minimalism, Blexbolex uses the metaphor of seasonality to reflect on a number of life’s big themes and the subtle dualities of being human. Four spreads depict the same landscape during each season, with a single word or phrase in bold block-letters on each page. But don’t breeze by the seeming simplicity of the concept — many of the thoughtful pairings on the beautiful double-page spreads give you pause and make you wonder why and how the two words go together, gently nudging you towards a philosophical meditation on the seasons, change and impermanence.

With its rich, textured colors, the creamy matte paper, and the tactile fabric on its spine, Seasons is as much a window of curiosity for kids as it is a beautiful art possession for grown-ups.

VOYAGE TO THE HEART OF MATTER

Since 1954, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, has been pushing the boundaries of human knowledge as the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Voyage to the Heart of Matter: The ATLAS Experiment at CERN is an extraordinary collaboration between CERN and acclaimed paper engineer Anton Radevsky, bringing to life CERN’s proudest creation: The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.

The meticulously engineered pop-up book captures CERN’s quest to understand the universe by bringing to life the astounding activities of the LHC, from protons colliding at nearly the speed of light at the heart of the ATLAS detector to reenactments of the conditions that existed millionths of a second after the Big Bang.

I LEGO N.Y.

I LEGO N.Y. by the brilliant Christoph Niemann (), which topped our selection of the best children’s books of 2010, takes an imaginative look at New York rendered entirely in LEGO — a manifestation of Niemann’s incredible gift for taking something ordinary and transforming it into pure whimsy. From the city’s iconic architecture to the peculiarities of its day-to-day, this pocket-sized treasure offers both a guide to and a wink at The Big Apple, full of Niemann’s characteristic subtle humor and charming aesthetic.

Images courtesy of Christoph Niemann / The New York Times

TSUNAMI

On Boxing Day 2004, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the Indian Ocean, killing more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. To commemorate the victims, West Bengali scroll painters Joydeb and Moyna Chitrakar created a ballad and a stunning picture scroll in the tradition of Patua, a form of narrative graphic art, transforming the tragic news into an artful and poetic fable. The fine folks at Tara Books, who brought us such handmade gems as The Night Life of Trees and I Like Cats, turned the Patua scroll into a book — but it’s no ordinary book. Tsunami is made entirely by hand and silkscreened onto handmade paper. It unfolds like a scroll and even features a hole from which to be hung on your wall. Its thick pages exude the rich smell of the authentic Indian dyes used in the screen-printing process, breathing even more mesmerism into the project’s extraordinary feat of bridging the fodder of newsrooms with the ancient art of Patua storytelling.

Some images courtesy of Tara Books

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Conscience of Television

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What Lucille Ball has to do with the dot-com bubble, or why 2001 was the beginning of the end for TV comedy.

I may have given away my TV set in 2004 and fully endorse Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus but, as a devoted Marshall McLuhan groupie, I’d be the last to renounce the medium as culturally inconsequential. Television, for all its ills and follies, still commands a remarkable portion of our collective conscience — and, it turns out, it has an implicit conscience of its own, as TV executive Lauren Zalaznick demonstrates in this eye-opening, stride-stopping TED talk, using GapMinder, the statistical visualization software made famous by TED rockstar Hans Rosling.

From the intricate balance of moral ambiguity and inspiration, humor and judgement, to the normative shifts scripted television can ignite, to the evolving ideals of motherhood, Zalaznick illustrates not only how history has shaped the medium, but also how the medium itself is shaping cultural history.

Moral ambiguity becomes the dominant meme in television from 1990 for the next twenty years.”

For a related treasure trove of fascination, you won’t go wrong with Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, the fantastic McLuhan almost-biography by beloved novelist and cultural critic Douglas Coupland.

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