The 21st Century as told in 1967

“The present and the future are merely extensions of the past.” — Walter Cronkite

I’ve been trying to get out from under the daily onslaught of “news” and spend more time learning from the past. Specifically, it’s been interesting look at old predictions. What did people in the past think the future would look like?

Benedict Evans recently posted this 1967 video of Walter Cronkite explaining what the home of 21st Century might look like. It’s a lovely time capsule. There are a lot of the space-aged misconceptions that you would expect — everything is modular and microwaved — but they also nailed some of the most important trends — urbanization and the internet.

A few things they got Right:

  • Urbanization (projected 90%, currently 80%).
  • “Work will come to us” (Remote work).
  • The internet, video chat, and on-demand information re: weather, news, stocks etc.
  • Surround sound and big ass TV remote controls.

In general, speculations that technology would augment, not replace the things that people enjoy doing were on point. People continue to enjoy reading the news, cooking, and staying in touch with loved ones in the 21st century, albeit with better tools. As Bezos says, “focus on the things that don’t change.”

A few things they got Wrong:

  • Automated kitchens (though these may finally be on their way) and TV dinners with a disposable heating elements that heat themselves after which you eat the food AND the package itself (WTF?!)
  • Plastic everything, including single use plates formed formed in realtime for each meal and inflatable chairs the size of a briefcase that people bring with them everywhere they go…because the future has no chairs?
  • Paper everything, including single use paper seats for children and printouts of the daily news from an interactive internet connected typewriter.
  • When asked if “the robot [could] make a mistake? Walk out of the house or run over your child?” Their solution was “A Big Red Button” that anyone can push to disable said robot.

Most of the things they got wrong were ham-fisted attempts retrofit the future with the fads of the present (plastic, microwaves, space). They also consistently guessed wrong about the level of automation of low value tasks. Turns out it’s a lot easier (and more cost effective) to use that ubiquitous communication device to hire a chef or cleaner than it is to build a robot capable of replacing either.

The Biggest Blind Spot

Walter & Co.’s most glaring blind spots had nothing to do with technology. Rather, they falsely assumed that social normals would remain static. The piece and its predictions are every bit as paternalistic as you would expect. The (presumably male) executives who produced the segment predicted the home office but could not fathom that it could be “manned” by a WOman. They imagined “robotic housemaids of the future” but didn’t stop to consider what women would do with all of their new found time.