Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

27 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Today Yesterday: 5 Vintage Visions for the Future of Technology


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.


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.


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.


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

The Conscience of Television


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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26 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern


From Shakespeare to Einstein via Lucretius, or how a long-lost Roman poem gave rise to the Renaissance.

Poggio Bracciolini might just be the most important man you’ve never heard of.

One cold winter night in 1417, the clean-shaven, slender young man pulled a manuscript off a dusty library shelf and could barely believe his eyes. In his hands was a thousand-year-old text that changed the course of human thought — the last surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a seminal poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius, full of radical ideas about a universe operating without gods and that matter made up of minuscule particles in perpetual motion, colliding and swerving in ever-changing directions. With Bracciolini’s discovery began the copying and translation of this powerful ancient text, which in turn fueled the Renaissance and inspired minds as diverse as Shakespeare, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein and Freud.

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, acclaimed Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of Bracciolini’s landmark discovery and its impact on centuries of human intellectual life, laying the foundations for nearly everything we take as a cultural given today.

This is a story [of] how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall of an unknown continent. [...] The epochal change with which this book is concerned — though it has affected all our lives — is not so easily associated with a dramatic image.

Central to the Lucretian worldview was the idea that beauty and pleasure were worthwhile pursuits, a notion that permeated every aspect of culture during the Renaissance and has since found its way to everything from design to literature to political strategy — a worldview in stark contrast with the culture of religious fear and superstitions pragmatism that braced pre-Renaissance Europe. And, as if to remind us of the serendipitous shift that underpins our present reality, Greenblatt writes in the book’s preface:

It is not surprising that the philosophical tradition from which Lucretius’ poem derived, so incompatible with the cult of the gods and the cult of the state, struck some, even in the tolerant culture of the Mediterranean, as scandalous [...] What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy — the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book — should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.

Illuminating and utterly absorbing, The Swerve is as much a precious piece of history as it is a timeless testament to the power of curiosity and rediscovery. In a world dominated by the newsification of culture where the great gets quickly buried beneath the latest, it’s a reminder that some of the most monumental ideas might lurk in a forgotten archive and today’s content curators might just be the Bracciolinis of our time, bridging the ever-widening gap between accessibility and access.

Hat tip My Mind on Books

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