We’ve Almost Always Gotten the Future Wrong – And That’s A Good Thing

3-01-13

Recently Yahoo! ran an article titled “Watch Walter Cronkite Tour a 21st-Century Home in 1967” which included three embedded videos of “the most trusted man in America” demonstrating what life would likely be in our homes of the future. It’s interesting viewing, to be sure. In broad strokes, you might recognize themes that we’ve met in Cronkite’s future. But in this 1960’s vision of the future, their imagination was limited.

The real future is much more interesting.

The”Living Room of the Future” – decorated very much in that 1960s version of the future that looks so very…1960’s, featured a center console that “controls a full array of equipment to inform, instruct, and entertain the family of the future.” This space-age entertainment console wasn’t quite the desktop monitors found in most 2001 homes – it looked much more like the NASA knob-based console of the moon landings from another future – 1969.

The quick glimpse of the yellow-on-brown text on the console’s “Videovision” grid was interesting as well. Not only was it addressed directly to “Mr. and Mrs. Cronkite”, it presaged the ongoing popularity of football – on Channel 98, so it also anticipated today’s multiple-channel universe. However, the content was equally reflective of the programming available in the 1960s – the game was between the Woodmere Wasps and the Stoneybrook Samurai, most likely a junior college event. Channel 16 counterprogrammed with “Greek Tragedy by Aeschylus”. You could tell that all of this was important as it was displayed in a Times Serif typeface (a forerunner of a font) in ALL CAPS.

Mr. Cronkite explained that we could watch a football game or a movie shown in “full color” on our “big 3-D TV screen.” The sound would come from two very “mod” looking white globes suspended from the ceiling alongside the grainy screen. Or, from the very same console, “with the press of a button, we could momentarily escape from our 21st Century lives and fill the room with stereophonic music from another age” – as he cues Bach’s Violin Concerto #1 in A Minor.

The other segments he looked at were the kitchen and something called a “home office.” In the future’s kitchen, food was ordered by typewriter or computer punch cards, and automatically microwaved and served on freshly molded plastic plates. Afterwards, dishes were melted down and food scraps destroyed, ready to start the process all over again.

In this futuristic “home office” is where “a man might spend most of his time, in the home of the 21st Century… to carry on normal business activities without ever going to an office away from home.” His special office equipment included a monitor where he’d get a “summary of news, relayed by satellite, from all over the world.” It was the same yellow-on-brown shouting text, in an obvious effort to avoid the hassle of constant Flash updates.

Of course, with the kitchen fully automated, there’s no explanation of what the woman of the future will be doing with herself while the man spends most of his time in his home office. Perhaps Walter was just really envisioning the future of the Man Cave.

Fast-forward four decades, a full 12 years beyond the future that was being postulated.

Because there’s one thing about this future that Mr. Cronkite never anticipated – the redefinition of the living room itself. “TV Everywhere” is our reality. Our ubiquitous living room TV was joined long ago by a bedroom TV, a kitchen TV, a basement TV, etc. And these are all still considered a “primary” screen.

Moreover, in this future, the fixed console has been replaced by a phone – which was then joined by a tablet. Neither would be recognizable by the 1967 futurists. There were no knobs, no buttons, not even any wires. Our HD—and sometimes 3D—screen is found in the living room still, sure. But it’s also on our second screens.

But their content estimation was about a 50/50 proposition. Football has morphed into one of the biggest types of televised content, although Greek tragedy is still woefully underrepresented on most TVs of this future.

Curiously, although our meals can indeed be microwaved, it’s our TV content that’s available on demand out of thin air – not our food. Our programming grid has been superseded by the DVR and online channel guides.

And our stereophonic music is delivered to a device that can be smaller than a pack of gum rather than two large ceiling mounted orbs – although they did get something right there. The earbuds most people use instead are indeed usually white.

And in this future, the home office is just as likely to be occupied by the lady of the house. The one who telecommutes full-time, picks up her kids in her television-equipped minivan, and serves them microwaved (or even home-cooked) meals in her Wifi-enabled kitchen while watching her kitchen TV.

So, as we step into our own time machine to report back to Mr. Cronkite – probably wearing a suit very much like his instead of a silver jumpsuit – we’ll honestly be able to tell him that television remains the heart in our real home of the future, not the console.

I’ll bet the old TV newsman will be pleased with that news. Because that’s the way it is.


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