In a comment to yesterday’s post about Bruce Sterling’s new book, Invisible Adjunct pointed out an online version of “Miracles of the Next Fifty Years,” a 1950 Popular Mechanics article describing what life would be like in 2000. It struck me that the piece made an error that Geoffrey Nunberg describes in his article “Farewell to the Information Age:” it projects emerging technologies out into the future in a fairly linear manner, but doesn’t imagine social life being any different. The future is a place of whiz-bang gadgetry, but the wife still stays home and cooks and cleans (though those will be much easier than in 1950).
It turns out that this article isn’t just like the kind of thing that Nunberg criticizes: it IS the article that Nunberg critizes! Here’s the opening to Nunberg’s “Farewell to the Information Age,” a piece that is very much worth reading in its entirety:
Nothing betrays the spirit of an age so precisely as the way it represents the future. Take the picture that appeared in Popular Mechanics magazine in 1950 in an article on “The Home of the Future.” It shows a woman in an apron in the middle of a living room full of furniture with the rounded “futuristic” forms of the period, which she is spraying with a garden hose. The caption reads, “Because all her furniture is waterproof, the housewife of the year 2000 can do her cleaning with a hose. “Like most such representations, it gives itself away in two complementary misapprehensions. The first and most obvious comes of taking some recent innovation at the steepest point of its curve and projecting it linearly to a point where it has swept all its predecessors aside….
The second misapprehension is the opposite of the first. It comes from a failure to appreciate, not how durable some features of the material setting will turn out to be, but rather how contingent and mutable are some of the categories of social life. What is most telling to us now about the Popular Mechanics picture is its presupposition is that in the year 2000 the household cleaning will still be woman’s work and indeed the function of the picture, wittingly or unwittingly, is to naturalize that assumption. This is a much harder kind of misconception to avoid, because it rests on the unspoken presuppositions of a discourse, and as such is more difficult to bring to consciousness. Or to put it another way: the first sort of error is in seeing the future as being insufficiently like the present, and that is relatively easy to correct for;you just imagine the future furnished like the room you are in. Whereas the second sort of error involves seeing the future as insufficiently different from the present, and this we can correct for only by a determined act of imagination: forty-five years from now gender roles will be different how??