In 1988, we predicted a thriving future. But what does our vision of a Utopian society really say about us?
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
All questions of futurism hinge on an implicit desire to be freed from something, a fantasy wherein its practitioner erases discomforts without questioning just how important comfort and convenience really are.The Verge has discovered a timely report from 1988 speculating about what life was supposed to be like in 2013, an occasion to look at not just the accuracy of its predictions but the pathos of its predictors, which we seem to have inherited.
"A Day in the Life," written by Nicole Yorkin for the Los Angeles Times is prescient in many respects, predicting the ubiquity of portable computers the size of 3 by 5 cards that everyone carries in their pockets, video conference calls, and cars outfitted with computer navigation systems. The story is also filled with robotic fancy, like a robotic dog a family's bought for their son to replace a real dog that's run away. By virtue of being a computer, the dog is both a playful companion and a tutor that helps the child learn to read and finish homework. The family also has a robotic butler, programmed to speak with a Southern voice because it reminds the family's father of his Texas upbringing.
The trap of futurism is that it's always easier to imagine how the objects around us will evolve, but much more difficult (or frightening) to imagine how the conditions that arise from the volatile and opaque relationships between people will change.
Unlike the prediction of video calls and GPS systems, which add functionality to pre-existing technologies to make them more useful, the robotic butler is a replacement for an actual person, whose role is an ambiguous combination of servant and manager. Billy Rae's first job every morning is to knock on the bedroom doors of everyone in the family and gently wake them with a folksy "Hey y'all--rise an' shine!" Later Billy Rae will make the table and pour bowls of cereal for the family, which originally led to a funny glitch when the computer AI failed to distinguish between cereal and dry cat food.
There is a safe indulgence in cruelty with robotics, sprung from a Czech word for "forced labor." A servant is the ideal fantasy for a robot, and Yorkin's image of the future is one where machinery is the catalyst for a perfect relationship between the desire to be served while not having to grapple with the guilt of asking another human to do it, laboring through such menial tasks as pouring cereal and waking its owners up. This is an especially Victorian outlook on technology, one that makes possible the maintenance of aristocratic luxury. Having a robotic butler wake you up is, in terms of practicality and energy efficiency, a huge step backward from simply relying on an alarm. Likewise, it seems a massive perversion of ego to have built a computerized simulacra of a human being in order to save a person the 14 seconds of work it takes to pull a bowl out of the cupboard and pour some cornflakes into it.
It's here the pathos of futurism is clearest as an optimism not about technology but access to class benefits that have otherwise been denied most people. This is attended by the inevitable convolutions that accompany the replacement of human labor with robotic labor. Will the benefits of having a live-in servant be the same when detached of its class-signifiers? If there is no charge to knowing it’s another person made to do the petty tasks for you, will the robotic butler not just seem like an added and intrusive presence in a home? The pleasure of having a servant is not in having menial tasks done on your behalf, sparing you 5 seconds here and 20 seconds there, but instead comes from knowing it is within your power to make another human being do them for you. Since robots will do anything, labor without the need for an enforcement mechanism, their utility as servant would only highlight the absence of class markers in having a servant that is not, in some dim and distant way, suffering in their service.
The image of the city as a whole is likewise a fantasy that tries to combine utopian communalism of magically accessible public transport in the form of Metro tubes snaking through a revitalized downtown, with even more conspicuous monuments of wealth and architecture, with angular new high rises jutting out of the skyline, built around the concept of "hanging floors" suspended from massive steel beams. Likewise, in security apparatuses, there is the suggestion of perpetual civil unrest with post office boxes requiring armament. The article also suggested a decrease in crime as the percentage of people between the ages of 15 and 19 in the overall population would decline from 15% to 12.8%. This is a particularly utopian approach to problem solving, suggesting the future will be better not because there will be better solutions to our current problems but simply because demography will diminish the groups most likely to become criminal.
The trap of futurism is that it's always easier to imagine how the objects around us will evolve, but much more difficult (or frightening) to imagine how the conditions that arise from the volatile and opaque relationships between people will change. Arguably just as important as the evolution of iPhones is the evolution of financial instruments and their ability to erode basic social goods. That is a kind of future that, in 1988 when the foundation for an unregulated derivatives markets was being laid, few people were interested in speculating about. Instead we get a more luxurious way of pouring cereal, and cybernetic replacements for animal companionship, a kind of optimism that distracts from reality. Optimism has no more fertile and potentially destructive playground than the future.