Monday, June 27, 2011
Ten years ago, as seen from one hundred years ago
That's from this collection of French images from 1910, which imagine society in the then-distant year 2000.
My first instinct is to laugh at how silly the pictures are, and a lot of them are very silly.
But I think there's more to them than that.
What strikes me most is the predictions' conservativism. A few of the images include zeppelin-boats or robotic cranes, but in many cases, the technology they depict already existed in 1910. For instance, motorcycles:
Or compare the plane here:
With the plane on this brochure for a 1910 air show:
In many ways, the most dramatic predictions being made were not about the arc of technological development. They're about the broad dispersal of technology. Airplanes existed in 1910, but in 2000, everyone would own one:
In short, this wasn't so much a prediction about scientific advancement as it was a prediction about economic advancement. And in a way, they were right, they just chose the wrong technologies. In the year 2000(ish), hardly anyone owns an airplane. But everyone owns an electronic reading machine -- an accomplishment almost more remarkable than the fact that we invented electronic reading machines in the first place:
And many people have access to video phones:
That last image hints at the prognosticators' other great oversight. In it, video communication is only possible because of the private operator working the cranks and pedals of the phone-device -- private operators being, surely, a luxury of the rich. Attendants and operators and carriage drivers lurk around the edges of many of these pictures. To the 19th century mind, it must have seemed perfectly natural that these wonderful new household technologies would, like 19th century households, require hired help in order to function properly. And it must have seemed perfectly natural that society would provide such a person when necessary.
Whatever foresight inspired these illustrators when imagining the spread and development of new technology, it abandoned them when it came time to predict how that same technology would change social customs. Ironically, among all the pictures of electric trains and flying carriages, the most jarring element is the turn-of-the-century dress and decoration -- and the set of social relationships that those things imply.
I'm sure the illustrators would have been thrilled to learn that the technology they envisioned in this image, called "Phonographic letter," would come to pass -- and then some.
But I wonder what they would say, if they knew everything in it from their world -- the houseservant, the old aristocrat, even the ornate landscape paintings and the fluffy yellow drapes -- would eventually begin to disappear.
(h/t James Fallows)
By WHS at 12:53 AM