Rocket Cars and Jetpacks

This is a 1959 painting by the German futurist Klaus Bürgle entitled “The new universe.” Like many images of the future from this period, it is focused on transportation. Why is this? Why did we have all the imaginings of personal jet packs and flying cars? I think it is because when new technology comes out, we can only understand it in terms of what it displaces. This is not a shortcoming of our imaginations, but rather a simple reality. When contemplating the future, our only point of reference is reality. Whether things in the future stay the same as they are today or change from what they are today, both are understood in terms of our reality today.

The examples of this are too numerous to be listed here. When television first came out, people said it was “Radio… with pictures.” The first cars were called “horseless carriages.” When telephones became untethered, they were “wireless telephones.” ATMs replaced tellers, so they are called “Automated Teller Machines.”

The list goes on forever. Movies are “motion pictures”- that is, pictures with motion. Even the phrase “movies” captures that they move, unlike photos. After that came “talkies” – motion pictures with sound. And “movie theaters” had to be called such, because otherwise no one would have known “it’s a theater, only they show movies there instead.” Telephones, when they appeared, were called “talking telegraphs.” Email is electronic mail.

Sometimes the new technology so overwhelms the old that when looking back, we explain the old technology in terms of the new. Cloth diapers were simply called “diapers” until disposable came out. We used to call “snail mail” plain old “mail.” All corn used to be “corn on the cob” until canned corn came along. Before 1939, all books were called books even though today we would call them “hardcover books.”

Because we can only understand the new technology in terms of the old, how we use the new technology is also an extension of how we used the old technology. Because television was radio with pictures, the first television shows were simply men in suits, standing in front of microphones, reading the news. It literally was radio with pictures. It wasn’t for a decade or two that the new medium began to be seen for its own merits, not in terms of what it displaced. Cars really were horseless carriages at first; literal carriages were retrofit with machinery. Cordless phones looked identical to their corded ancestors, merely sans cord.

In 1959, the major technological leaps that people had witnessed in the prior decades were related to transportation, both ground transportation and aviation. Thus, they expected to see continued and dramatic change in these areas.

No one predicted the Internet in 1959 because there was nothing that could be seen as a precursor to it.

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