no candy for me, thanks

Last night, Jeff and I were sharing some laughs over a reprint of a February 1950 Popular Mechanics article about predictions of suburban life in the year 2000 (thanks to Arts & Literature Daily for the pointer to the article). [Note: the reprint is part of a larger, fascinating MIT site dedicated to the “home of the future.”]

The article starts off pleasantly and unsurprisingly enough, describing the imaginary suburb of 2000, Tottenville, as “clean as a whistle and quiet. It is a crime to burn raw coal and pollute air with smoke and soot.” Descriptions of the relative merits and uses of electrical, atomic and solar power are informative and fairly non-controversial. Where the article starts to become silly, by today’s standards, is in its expectations that function and ease of use completely would overrule issues of style and good taste:

When Jane Dobson cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors–all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) Jane turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything. A detergent in the water dissolves any resistant dirt. Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. Jane Dobson throws soiled “linen” in the incinerator. Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but Jane Dobson has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order….

Some of the food that Jane Dobson buys is what we miscall “synthetic.” …By 2000, a vast amount of research has be[en] conducted to exploit principles that were embryonic in the first quarter of the 20th century. Thus sawdust and wood pulp are converted into sugary foods. Discarded paper table “linen” and rayon underwear are bought by chemical factories to be converted into candy.

While candy made out of discarded rayon underwear is perhaps unappealing and a little frightening, the truly alarming predictions were from the area of weather forecasting and control:

[S]torms are more or less under control. It is easy enough to spot a budding hurricane in the doldrums off the coast of Africa. Before it has a chance to gather much strength and speed as it travels westward toward Florida, oil is spread over the sea and ignited [emphasis mine]. There is an updraft. Air from the surrounding region, which includes the developing hurricane, rushes in to fill the void. The rising air condenses so that some of the water in the whirling mass falls as rain.

With storms diverted where they do no harm, aerial travel is never interrupted.

Thank goodness. I’d hate to think that we couldn’t put all this fossil fuel to good use by deliberately releasing and igniting it in the ocean.

After discussing the requisite personal helicopter stored on the roof, and the eradication of aging, influenza and the common cold, the article takes a final disturbing turn in a way that shows the influences of the Cold War and McCarthyism, and suggests that this little suburb of Tottenville is just up the road from Stepford:

Any marked departure from what Joe Dobson and his fellow citizens wear and eat and how they amuse themselves will arouse comment. If old Mrs. Underwood, who lives around the corner from the Dobsons and who was born in 1920 insists on sleeping under an old-fashioned comforter instead of an aerogel blanket of glass puffed with air so that it is as light as thistledown she must expect people to talk about her “queerness.” It is astonishing how easily the great majority of us fall into step with our neighbors. And after all, is the standardization of life to be deplored if we can have a house like Joe Dobson’s, a standardized helicopter, luxurious standardized household appointments, and food that was out of the reach of any Roman emperor?

There’s old lady Underwood now… let’s get her! Baseball bats, probably now made of recycled feminine hygiene products, are amazingly light yet still pack a wallop.

2 thoughts on “no candy for me, thanks

  1. It’s so interesting that the futurists of the past (there’s a great article title) seemed to launch into these grand predictions, but always did it by extending the current technology instead of assuming that new ones would come along.
    I find it amusing that the factories of the year 2000 would have few troubleshooters – and those only to fix burned out vacuum tubes.
    They were right on target with supersonic transport, though – but as is the case with most futurists, they don’t take economics into account. Their promise of high fares was right – it put supersonic transport out of business.
    Now, where’s my standardized helicopter?

  2. Sheldon, Lisa and I were talking about this while watching an episode of the original Star Trek the other night, compared to which even 1980s technology already looked futuristic. I was musing that perhaps the Enterprise NCC-1701 was a deliberately retro fabrication of the Federation. Just as we’re buying MINI Coopers now with toggle switches and big analog gauges, perhaps the Enterprise designers of the future were creating an intentional nostalgic statement with their Pong-style displays, clunky buttons, flashy lights and odometer-like numeric readouts.

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