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Looking backward at the future

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2005

As technology plunges ever forward (or as we perceive it doing so), it’s not often that we stop to take a look back at how people thought the future was going to unfold before them. Peter Edidin of the NY Times recently did so, reviewing prognostications about radio, films, and television. It’s fun to read the ones where people thought the new technology was going to complete overtake and eliminate an older technology (which does happen, but not as often as people expect). Bruce Bliven on radio in 1922:

There will be only one orchestra left on earth, giving nightly worldwide concerts; when all universities will be combined into one super-institution, conducting courses by radio for students in Zanzibar, Kamchatka and Oskaloose; when, instead of newspapers, trained orators will dictate the news of the world day and night, and the bedtime story will be told every evening from Paris to the sleepy children of a weary world…

D. W. Griffith, the great filmmaker of the early era, had this to say of film in 1915:

The time will come, and in less than 10 years, when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again. Imagine a public library of the near future, for instance. There will be long rows of boxes of pillars, properly classified and indexed, of course. At each box a push button and before each box a seat. Suppose you wish to “read up” on a certain episode in Napoleon’s life. Instead of consulting all the authorities, wading laboriously through a host of books, and ending bewildered, without a clear idea of exactly what did happen and confused at every point by conflicting opinions about what did happen, you will merely seat yourself at a properly adjusted window, in a scientifically prepared room, press the button, and actually see what happened.

But it’s also fun to see when people got it right, more or less. In 1936, J.C. Furnas had this to say of television:

It is my hope, and I see no reason why it should not be realized, to be able to go to an ordinary movie theater when some great national event is taking place across the country and see on the screen the sharp image of the action reproduced - at the same instant it occurs. This waiting for the newsreels to come out is a bit tiresome for the 20th century. Some time later I hope to be able to take my inaugurals, prize fights and football games at home. I expect to do it satisfactorily and cheaply. Only under those conditions can a television get into my house.

Under that set of criteria, it probably took awhile for a TV set to enter the Furnas household, but by the time NBC started broadcasting sporting events in the mid-1940s, they probably had one.

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