Visions of an Automated Future
I hadn’t thought of a topic for today’s post until my wife and I started talking. I said that I had written a bit about smart spaces yesterday and, following that thread, we started talking about artistic and popular culture representations of the “Home of the Future.” So, I decided to write about how visions of their future, our now, were depicted artistically.
Perhaps my favorite film to take on the clash of old and new technology and how it fit into society is the Jacques Tati masterpiece, Mon Oncle,” in which Mr. Hulot, Tati’s legendary comic creation, moves between his old world café culture and his brother’s modern world. As one might expect, all kinds of bedlam ensues and the boy, Mr. Hulot’s nephew, enjoys the comedy of both worlds.
I think “Mon Oncle” would present a tremendous challenge for someone trying to make a DVS track for it. While the filming occurred in the middle of the century, Tati uses many techniques of silent film and the movie has very little dialogue and that all in French. The music, the whacky actions, rich visuals and many facial expressions make the film very funny. I would love to hear any of the Mr. Hulot films brought to DVS just to learn how the script writer found ways to deliver the information. Also, since losing my vision, I miss Jacques Tati movies because they made me laugh Outloud, no matter how many times I saw them.
Tati juxtaposed a very modernistic, Bauhaus design sort of house with Mr. Hulot’s home, a mixture of architectural styles that melded together as the building expanded over the years. Both homes brought laughter as they depicted the most extreme of each community. Hulot grew confused and made a mess in his brother’s smart home and, conversely, his brother didn’t approve of the organic structure in which Hulot resided. I’m sure some will try out a smart home and want to go back to their old ways of doing things just for the pure aesthetic of having appliances that are not automated. Geeks, like me, will wonder how we ever lived before automation.
Another classic example of a smart house in popular art is, of course, the Jetsons cartoons. George and the family get served by their robotic maid, a bot so advanced that she shows emotions and sounds curiously like Hazel from another popular 1960s sitcom. Virtually everything in the Jetsons’s house works automatically as do things in George’s office. The family rarely worries about things technical and, in fact, all of the smart appliances in their home serve merely as props that the characters take for granted. Will we ever achieve such a technologically utopian home?
HAL, the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” jointly designed by the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and MIT artificial intelligence professor, Marvin Minsky, lived at the center of and controlled a very complex smart system. This distopic vision of the intelligent agent turning on the men it was designed to serve probably portends the greatest bug any hacker will ever have in a complex bit of software and reminds us to test the hell out of our work.
Anyone who has visited a Disney resort may have stumbled into “Tomorrowland” Walt’s thoroughly bizarre image of a future that never happened. If you have entered one of these very frightening places, did you notice that virtually all of the older portraits, from the earlier Disney days, showed white people only? Did you happen to notice that all of the pictures showed all people looking forward and somewhat upward as if they could see the future as they walked, I always wondered how they kept from stepping in dog poop with their gaze always toward the sky? I also wondered where the non-white people went, did Walt share Hitler’s image of the future? Another question about Tomorrowland is why are all of the buildings, transportation systems, machines and such all painted white? Wouldn’t that cause a lot of glare?
In his short story collection “Burning Chrome,” William Gibson (one of my favorite science fiction writers) includes a story which serves as a commentary on Tomorrowland. I can’t recall the title but the story describes a scenario in which some people from our time are transported to another dimension, the one in which the “future that never happened” really did occur. In one of his rare comical pieces, Gibson puts the protagonists into a world like Disney’s Tomorrowland with a lot of things included from old science fiction stories, old copies of popular science and lots of other things predicted by futurists that never came to reality. Definitely a worthwhile read.
Finally, I’ll mention Jordi from Star Trek. I think a lot of us blinks would love a visor like his. I, not being much of a Star Trek fan wonder about how it actually works. In one episode, his vision was temporarily restored and, removing his visor, he looks at one of the woman characters and says, “You really are as beautiful as I had imagined…” This puzzled me as I thought he should have been able to know that by using his visor.
There exist many more examples from art and popular culture of visions of an automated future. Please write to me with some of your favorites and how they may or may not represent something you would like in your living space someday.
I know this article isn’t technically about blindness issues but it fit with the thread and, as smart homes grow in popularity, we can check on how accurate these visions of the future really turn out to be. Our reality, brought to us through really cool new technology was part of last century’s science fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that people should be very skeptical of predictions made by science fiction writers and so-called futurists. Everyone from H. G. Wells to Ray Kurzweil got some things right. Our selective memories tend to remember the handful of correct predictions and we forget about all of those that never happened. My favorite example of a prediction that came true but missed an enormously important aspect of how it became possible is Arthur C. Clarke’s description of geo-synchronous satellites published back in the fifties. True, he conceived of the satellite system which would only come to actuality decades later but, in his vision, the satellites contained humans whose primary job involved changing vacuum tubes. Clarke, in this legendary story, missed a topic widely discussed in magazines like Popular Science and Popular Electronics while he wrote the story that an inventor at Bell Labs would create the following year: namely, the transistor. Clarke could dream up a complex communications system involving objects in outer space but the simple transistor, invented only a year after he published his story eluded him.
Clarke’s geo-synchronous satellites, so important to cellular communication, would in a world without transistors be simply ridiculous. A typical mobile phone handset would be bigger and heavier than the Empire State building and I couldn’t even guess how large a GPS unit would be. Without portable devices, geosynchronous satellites have little or no purpose.
I honestly do enjoy reading science fiction and futuristic novels (1984 for instance) but I do so for pleasure and to fantasize about possibilities. I just don’t take them too seriously or else I’d be in the garage working on my own time machine.