Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The future is made of robots and shiny spacesuits

This vintage view of the future posted at io9 caught my eye.

I suppose that is something of a contradiction in terms: vintage future. But that's exactly what it is. It is how people once viewed a coming "Space Age" just after World War II. The one at io9 is an initial cover for the short story collection, Space on My Hands by Fredric Brown, 1951. It features a family in shiny spacesuits. Even the dog is wearing one (which is pretty cool if you ask me.) A tag on the post cites a link to the site, Retro-Futurism, which has all sorts of other kitschy, vintage goodness.

These now-hokey views of the future hold something of a fascination for me. I view them in tandem with the show Mad Men and how our current age is seeing that bygone era with a critical eye, dispelling many of the myths that it was a "golden age" of any kind. One story arc of that aforementioned series has Don Draper dealing with Conrad Hilton, founder of the worldwide hotel chain. Hilton is perturbed when finds that the adwork for a new campaign does not include a Hilton on the Moon. "We're going to the Moon," he protests, feeling that hotels in space are the way of the future. Similarly, proposed adwork for Heinz beans shows a kid entering his domicile on the lunar surface, removing his space helmet in order to eat the plate of baked beans that mom just dished over to him.

It all seems maudlin now, along with much else from the 1950s and 60s. How could we have expected to expand into space when we had yet to confront the racism, sexism, and homophobia at home? Well, there's one interesting point I'm toying with along those lines. I'm not certain I'm on the right track but stick with me for a moment as I think out loud.

By the time the images at Retro-Futurism were created, the idea of enslaving another human being was pretty much anathema to the industrialized world. I mean, I suppose there were pockets deep in Mississippi and Alabama that were still down with it, but I'm not talking about that. Still, forward progress is predicated upon cheap labor. So...just look at all the robots in those pictures. They're vacuuming the floor and dusting furniture while a guy does push-ups. They're performing dull and dangerous duties while their human owners chill.

This fear of "robots are going to take our jobs" has been around for a loooonnnngggg time.

Of course the possibility of a downside is also present, notably as a robot pours water in its owner. Again, the burgeoning fears of a robopocalypse?

Despite reality, I can't help but admire this vintage optimism. It's a shiny future, not the dirty one that's full of problems and ambiguity. We would all be undertaking adventures in space with seemingly little difficulties and our robot sidekicks would forever be by our sides. Would have been nice.

Instead, all we got was this stupid dystopia.

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