When I was an aspiring actor doing summer stock, I appeared in the musical “Where’s Charley?” a funny farce by Frank Loesser and George Abbott set at the turn of the last century. One of the cute numbers sung by Amy, the ingénue, predicted such inventions as wireless telegraphy, horseless carriages that fly, and stereopticons that move.
What a simple time and what simple dreams for a better future, I thought. At that time, in the 1960s, all I dreamed about was to someday have a color TV so that I could sit comfortably at home, watching movies in living color. I never dreamed of the kind of technology that would allow me to see from home what the rest of the world was doing, nor could I imagine that surveillance technology might allow the rest of the world to see what I was doing at home. There have always been inventions for better living from the beginning of time with the discovery of fire and the creation of the wheel. But now in the 21st century, is it time to say enough already?
I had a traumatic experience recently when my relatively new iMac laptop which I use in the assumed privacy of my own home went down. Only when I contacted Apple support did I learn that this device that greatly facilitates my working from home had been badly “compromised,” not by just one evil force but two from different parts of the country that had taken over the function of my computer to conduct unknown activities. Whatever they were, I’m sure it was not for the common good or for me.
After two days of phone discussion with a few smart guys in India, my functionality was restored and hopefully secured with an expensive protection system. But what’s next in this age of technology, especially with the surveillance systems designed to monitor and protect our homes? Will it all come back to haunt us time and again?
That’s the thing about trying to predict which technologies and innovations will become part of our home life and which should be avoided for its downside. For every scientist who claimed that we would have quick and convenient frozen dinners available (six years before Swanson first sold them in 1953), there was another who claimed that by 1978 our milk would come from kerosene instead of cows. Yikes!
The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair featured a Home of Tomorrow with a floor to ceiling curtain wall system which would regulate the internal temperature at any time of the year. Because all families in the future were assumed to own their own planes, the home also featured an air hangar to go with the garage.
The 1964 World’s Fair in New York made more modest, and more accurate, predictions. Here a couple in an “all-electric home” marveled at their electric cooking range, their self-cleaning oven, the many colors available for all their appliances, VHS tapes, and mood lighting for their stereo system. And where are the grandparents, you may ask? They are at their own senior citizen retirement community, which really didn’t exist at that time.
While scientists, engineers and futurists have tried in many ways to imagine more convenient and more efficient innovations for our homes, more often than not, they are off-target. In 1950, Popular Mechanics imagined that housewives in the year 2000 would have homes made entirely of plastic and waterproof fiber. To clean everything, the homemaker would blast the rooms with a hose. While we all want to simplify our housework, we haven’t yet gone that far in the name of convenience.
But at times the soothsayers were correct. They predicted microwave ovens in 1937, the remote-controlled home in 1939, and flat-screen TVs in 1954.
We all quickly adopted the microwave and, in the past few years, the flat-screen and the remote controlled home, connected via the internet to our cell phones. But now there is the question of whether this digital information can be used to invade our privacy. And the discussion will continue of how far government can go in the surveillance of its citizens in the fight against crime and terrorism.
In my opinion, the most anticipated development for the home that would seem relatively harmless is the video telephone. It took a while, but it is finally here, albeit through the medium of a computer, tablet or smartphone.
In fact, shortly I will catch up with the future by participating from home in my first business meeting via Skype. I will try to repress the anxiety in the back of my mind that someone may be capturing the information for purposes other than what is intended.