Essay: THE FUTURISTS: Looking Toward A.D. 2000

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Some futurists like to make predictions about homey details of living. The kitchen, of course, will be automated. An A.D. 2000 housewife may well make out her menu for the week, put the necessary food into the proper storage spaces, and feed her program to a small computer. The experts at Stanford Research Institute visualize mechanical arms getting out the preselected food, cooking and serving it. Similarly programmed household robots would wash dishes, dispose of the garbage (onto a conveyer belt moving under the street), vacuum rugs, wash windows, cut the grass. Edward Fredkin, founder of Cambridge's Information International Inc., has already developed a computer-cum-mechanical-arm that can "see" a ball thrown its way and catch it. Soon, Fredkin expects his gadget to be able to play a mean game of pingpong.

As for shopping, the housewife should be able to switch on to the local supermarket on the video phone, examine grapefruit and price them, all without stirring from her living room. But among the futurists, fortunately, are skeptics, and they are sure that remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop—because women like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds. Not everything that is possible will happen—unless people want it. One thing they almost certainly will want is electronic "information retrieval": the contents of libraries and other forms of information or education will be stored in a computer and will be instantly obtainable at home by dialing a code.

In automated industry, not only manual workers, but also secretaries and most middle-level managers will have been replaced by computers. The remaining executives will be responsible for major decisions and long-range policy. Thus, society will seem idle, by present standards. According to one estimate, only 10% of the population will be working, and the rest will, in effect, have to be paid to be idle. This is not as radical a notion as it sounds. Even today, only 40% of the population works, not counting the labor performed by housewives or students. Already, says Tempo's John Fisher, "we are rationing work. By 1984, man will spend the first third of his life, or 25 years, getting an education, only the second one-third working, and the final third enjoying the fruits of his labor. There just won't be enough work to go around. Moonlighting will become as socially unacceptable as bigamy."

By 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the U.S. will, in effect, be independently wealthy. With Government benefits, even nonworking families will have, by one estimate, an annual income of $30,000-$40,000 (in 1966 dollars). How to use leisure meaningfully will be a major problem, and Herman Kahn foresees a pleasure-oriented society full of "wholesome degeneracy."

There are some who gloomily expect a society run by a small elected elite, presiding over a mindless multitude kept happy by drugs and circuses, much as in Huxley's Brave New World. But most futurists believe that work will still be the only way to gain responsibility and power.

Fear & Bliss

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