Imagined futures 1: Telecommunications
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I'm fascinated by vintage 'future' visions - the way people in the past thought we might live in this century. Known as retrofuturism - this is the history of predictions. To that end, I'm writing a series of posts that feature ideas, images and visions of the 21st century. How did people in the past envisage life in the 21st century? One might argue that it would have been more difficult to predict the future in 1930 than it is now, because change was slower. But predicting the future has always been difficult.
The first image I've chosen is an illustration created by an artist from 1930. It depicts a vision of how people in the future might communicate with others over distance, combining telephony and video. In 1930, telephones and television were already in existence, and video was some years away. Telephones had become quite widely available, but television was still in its infancy. These technologies had been invented around 1876 (Alexander Graham Bell) and c 1926 (John Logie Baird) respectively (although earlier versions had been proposed by several other inventors) and were tethered, bulky devices. Mobile phones would not appear on the scene until Motorola's Martin Cooper created the first prototype in 1973.
The image depicts two women sitting in an outdoor café at the same table (is the woman on the right wearing a hoody?), but interestingly, both are talking to other people on their handsets while simultaneously ignoring each other. Apart from the unlikely flying car in the background, this seems to be a fairly accurate depiction of contemporary life. The women are using two-way video communication similar to services such as Facetime, and the illustration captures the social disregard that occurs when two individuals who are sharing the same space are each absorbed into an interaction that is digitally mediated. Note also the large battery pack on the hip, the large microphone, and the headset. Early mobile phones had substantial battery units, and were therefore a lot larger than the pocket devices we carry around today. But battery life is still a significant issue even today. The face-to-face at a distance communication depicted, is common now, both in handheld and desktop format, but 20-30 years ago, videotelephony was confined to room based systems that were large and expensive. We have made significant technological advances in the last few decades but predicting the future is just as difficult now as it was in 1930. It's been said before, but predictions of the future often reveal more about the mind of the artist than they do about the future.
Imagined futures 1: Telecommunications by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.