In 1961, a group of scientists at Bell Laboratories tried to predict what an ordinary working day would be like in “the far-out future” – that is, more or less now.
“They see a turn-of-the-century business executive busy at his job,” Life Magazine wrote of their predictions. “He is sitting in his garden at home, and on his wireless pocket phone is hashing over a problem with his sales manager. Then he rings off, pushes a few buttons to dial his secretary who, from her own home, takes the boss’s dictation. The dictating session over, the boss … reads the mail that has come in at his deskside ... ‘I’d better get the boys together,’ he decides. He pushes buttons on his picture phone. Soon half a dozen other executives are on the screens looking at each other and talking.”
While that is taking place, “the boss’s wife has been doing her shopping. She called the butcher shop on her own picture phone, looked over the steaks, finally selected one she deemed sufficiently well marbled … No need to talk to the grocers. She merely pushed a button or two to tell how much of each she wanted. Then she card-dialed her dentist for an appointment and afterward remembered she had not paid her last bill. She … pushed buttons to indicate the dentist’s code number, pushed other buttons to indicate the amount, and hung up. Downtown at the bank a check was automatically drawn on her account and credited to the dentist’s.”
The boss-man’s son, in turn, is “in his room participating in class discussion by picture-phone … His sister, doing research for a term paper, has dialled a book from the library. It is displayed on her screen, and she turns the pages by push button.”
What should we, the habitués of the future foretold in these words, make of them? On one hand, they got the technical details amazingly right: In 1961, the touch-tone telephone was still two years away, the smallest TV weighed more than a child, computers were room-sized and the satellite and laser were laboratory curiosities. Yet these boffins predicted the smartphone, the Internet, Wi-Fi, Skype, e-commerce, online billing, telecommuting, groupware, the Kindle and online university courses.
On the other hand, they got the human stuff freakishly wrong. The guys at Bell Labs (yes, they were all guys) had no idea that the next few years would see vast changes in the structure of the workplace, the role of industry and, above all, the relationship between men and women. The notion of wifey at home assembling the big boss’s dinner as he conference-called “the boys” would soon become as antediluvian as that of a manufacturing company with hierarchies of sales managers. The private home office would, by merit of its very connectedness, become the least private of places. An era of still-incomplete liberation was beginning, but it wasn’t executives liberated from the office by devices – it was women, sexual and racial minorities working to empower themselves without any help from technology.
This is a constant pattern in our predictions of the future: We are very good at guessing where our inventions might lead. We are very poor at understanding how humans might change their lives between the machines, or within them, or, sometimes, in defiance of them.
Almost 20 years ago, in 1995, American futurist Jeremy Rifkin published his book The End of Work, a huge bestseller that correctly predicted an online economy. But it predicted that this would make employment obsolete: “New, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world,” he wrote. What followed was a decade of near-full employment across the West, provoked by the very technologies he said would end work. The eventual crisis would be caused by political, not technological, developments. Depressed wages, misplaced optimism and undertaxation led the information age to calamity.
Yet his prediction is having a renaissance. Today, it seems fairly certain that driverless trucks, non-staffed subway systems and machine-only medical examinations will soon be part of our lives, ending entire realms of employment. Formerly elite trades such as journalist and revolutionary leader have become avocations for anyone with a smartphone and attitude. But lifelong, full-pension employment has become a vanishing luxury, and it’s become much harder to raise yourself out of a wage-job rut.
The McLuhanite vision of human society shaped by its devices was not quite right: Yes, our lives will change, but not inevitably in a dark 1995 sense or an over-rosy 1961 sense. The decision of what kind of life to live between the screens remains a political one, shaped not by our inventions but by our own decisions.
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