Imagined futures 1: Telecommunications

Image source unknown
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.

Creative Commons License
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.


Martin King said…
SNAP ... I'm also fascinated by this ... both as a historical look forward as and as a sort of contemporary retro look steampunk style.

"We see the world through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future" ~ Marshall McLuhan

I wrote about this a little while ago as well - see

How Shall I Remember The Future?

With What Shall I Remember The Future?

"We see the world through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future" ~ Marshall McLuhan

The act of prediction is an act of extrapolation .. we take new discoveries and trends and project them into the future. The act of prediction is an act of projection ... coloured with some imagination and wishful thinking.

One question that bothers me .. .why is thinking about the future dominated about thinking about tech?
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for the comments Martin. McLuhan echoed Voltaire (who features in my next post), and they are both right - but in response to your last question: I think that technology shapes a lot of our thinking about the future, and it's hard to divorce the two. Whether eutopian or dystopian, many of our future visions have focused upon technology, and how it drives us forward. I may dedicate a specific post in this series to that question....

Popular Posts