It’s no secret I have a massivesoftspot for alphabet books. In 1963, prolific mid-century illustrator and author Edward Gorey published an alphabet book so grimly antithetical to the very premise of the genre — making children feel comfortable and inspiring them to learn — that it took the macabre humor genre to a new level. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs,” The Gashlycrumb Tinies begins. “B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh…”
Part Tim Burton long before there was Burton, part Edgar Allan Poe long after Poe, the book exudes Gorey’s signature adult picture book mastery, not merely adorned by the gorgeously dark crosshatched illustrations but narratively driven by them.
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What 1980s futurism has to do with the cola wars and presaging Angry Birds.
In 1987, Apple CEO John Sculley published Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple — a tale of innovative ideas, tumultuous transitions and unabashed practical futurism. Besides the fascinating story of the seminal “Pepsi Challenge,” which allowed Pepsi to gain unprecedented market share over competitor Coke, the book features a peculiar concept called Knowledge Navigator — a networked device that can search a massive hypertext database and retrieve just about any information, using a multitouch interface and powerful voice recognition technology. So, essentially, Wikipedia meets iPhone meets Ford Sync long before there was either.
Alongside the book, Sculley released a series of concept videos showcasing Knowledge Navigator, set in roughly the present day and regarded at the time as an outlandish technological pipe dream. (Here’s where we point you to last week’s piece on vintage visions of the future.)
What’s most remarkable about this Knowledge Navigator video demo is that it was produced six years before the graphical interface of the web even existed, a good 15 years before point-to-point videoconferencing like Skype was a mainstream reality, and some 2 decades before touchscreen technology had widespread device implementation.
Odyssey was republished last August by Betascript Publishing. We highly recommend it not only as a living hallmark of our collective cultural curiosity for information technology, but also as a fascinating presage of today’s digital learning landscape.
Flying cars! Spinning buildings! Voice AND color! …or what Disney has to do with Eve.
Last year, we looked at the 2020 Project, which invited some of today’s sharpest thinkers to imagine tomorrow. But how will their visions look to future generations? To get a taste for it, we looked to the past: Here are 6 charming visions for the future, from the past — a delightful exercise in retrofuturism that embodies humanity’s chronic blend of boundless imagination, solipsistic foolishness and hopeless optimism.
THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL
In 1936, Japanese magazine Shonen Club published World Transportation Invention Competition — an illustrated series envisioning the future of transportation, based on concepts by inventors from around the world. From high-speed monorail to tank-like battle boats to a car with spherical wheels, the images embody a fascinating blend of technological urgency and artistic imagination.
Mountain monorail -- Kikuzo Ito, 1936
A powerful airplane propeller balances a precarious-looking two-wheel bodice, while a tail fin keeps the train upright and stable.
sphere-wheeled car -- Reiji Iizuka, 1936
Based on a concept by a German inventor, the vehicle's oversized rubbery tires promise a smoother ride than the conventional tires and act as a cushion in the event of an accident.
WALT DISNEY’S TOMORROWLAND
Last month, we featured Walt Disney’s Man In Space — an entire series of retrofuturist visions for space exploration, part of his Tomorrowland program. In the following mashup, digital artist David Phillips remixes footage from the program to capture Disney’s legendary optimism about the future.
CLOTHING OF THE FUTURE
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 is as delightfully retrofuturistic as they come.
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.
Vision as well as sound, oh my! When British telecommunication giant BT imagined the future of communication technology — from videoconferencing to high-definition document transmission — they made their most conceptually innovative proposition, the notion of telecommuting, with a kind of facetiousness most ironic in the context of today’s remote-everything workplace.
Given all these facilities, the businessman will scarcely need to go to his office at all. He can do all his work in the comfort of his own home.”
In 1980, a TV segment entitled Telefuture envisions a world of television-based information services. While at its core lies a fascinating and, in retrospect, remarkably accurate exploration of the exponential progression of technology — including transmedia experiences that even modernity can’t get quite right, like Internet TV — the excitement and language used to describe technologies we now find primitive is a disarming source of amusement. We held it together quite admirably, until the vintage-voiced man described basic 8-bit diversions as “incredibly complex games” — at that point, through tears of laughter, we wonder how his vocabulary of superlatives would hold up against the latest Halo 3 or Guitar Hero.
But don’t think of it just as a receiver of programs from networks or local stations — it’s becoming a central display terminal, able to show pictures from a growing number of electronic sources, including traditional broadcast stations, 40 or more channels of cable television, video cassette recorders with timers to record programs to watch at your convenience, video disc machines that don’t record but play back records of films, specials and so on, and games people play, incredibly complex games now programmed into your sets by small cassettes or cards or memory discs.”
For some quality present-day retrofuturism, we highly recommend What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science — a fantastic, and not necessarily fantastical, anthology of 18 essays by leading scientists across evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience and psychology exploring the future of ethics and the human mind.
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