Weird World: Yesterdays future, today!

A (possibly) weekly presentation of badly researched and (in my opinion) peculiar facts (if they can really be called facts, which they can’t), stories (retold by me, only worse), or news (which will all be old and no longer interesting).  This week, yesterdays future, today!

It’s November the 30th, 1944, and The Catalina Islander reports on a terrifying possibility. There is a very real fear, the paper writes, of  “robot attacks on the American Atlantic coast”.

The future has always excited us, inspired us, given us hope for the world and those generations who will live on it. When tomorrow becomes today, however, and the future we imagined becomes a stark and unflinching reality, our hopefulness can seem unfounded.

The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, so well directed by a pre-beard Orson Welles that it fooled a nation (or just a few idiots, depending on who you ask), taught us to be weary of the day science fiction becomes science fact. Despite being a Halloween production, and having a pre-show disclaimer announcing it as fiction, those unfortunate enough to tune in were plunged into a terrifying possibility. Aliens invading earth, a desperate fight to survive, our place as the universes most intelligent life questioned and our very existence threatened. The stories we had delighted each-other with for so many years were now a temporary reality, and that reality was enough to strike terror into our hearts.

People were rattled by The War of the Worlds. It was an experience that wasn’t shook off with a laugh and a sigh. People were angry, and they were upset.  One letter sent to the FCC from City Manager Paul Morton claimed that the broadcast “completely crippled (the) communication facilities of our Police Department for about three hours”, and requested that they ” immediately make an investigation and do everything possible to prevent a reoccurrence.” Newspapers dubiously insisted that listeners had killed themselves and fled their homes, and called on stricter regulations for future productions. The War of the Worlds, needless to say, was not presenting the optimistic future we liked to imagine.

But back to the robot invasion.

“Will robot bombs, launched from submarines, land in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities on the Eastern seaboard? Such a thing seems fantastic. But it might not be.” The suggestion of a robot attack might not have been intended to provoke images of transformers tearing through cities, but it was still an idea that belonged in the pages of speculative fiction. With the advent of World War Two, however, technological advancements were soaring.

“Experience has shown” The Catalina Islander article goes on, “that we can’t just laugh off these seemingly crazy predictions.” Where as before we looked at the future with wide eyed wonder, and a certain amount of confidence in how far away it remained, 1939 proved that the future wasn’t fifty years away, but tomorrow. It was scary, to see new bombs develop and destroy, and wartime anger would only speed up their advancement. “One thing is certain” the article writes. “If the Nazis do succeed in launching flying bombs against the United States, it will do more to awaken us to the real nature of the enemy we are fighting than anything else could. It will knock out of us the indifference which is still slowing the production of certain essential war materials, and destroy any lingering notion that Germany might be permitted to have a ‘soft’ peace.”

One year later the war was over, and twenty two years after that we had found our hope again. We were living in a world where “fireside computers” sat on the horizon, and where technology looked set to help rather than hurt. The Cincinnati Enquirer on 17 Sep 1967 wrote eagerly (and quite a lot like your grandparents)  “one of these days you’ll have a computer terminal in your living room. It will have a screen like a TV set, a device for printing words on paper, and a keyboard. The lady of the house will use it for filling recipes and balancing the family checkbook. It can also serve as an employment agency, travel service, library, and daily news paper.” Well, that does sound jolly exciting doesn’t it! Add to that talk of “the possible future portable computer terminal” which is “flat, like a wallet, and when you open it up there is a small keyboard, like a typewriters” and you might just convince me the future really is going to be awesome!

Already the problems were making themselves known, however: “Someone will have to decide whether a computer utility should be a monopoly or competitive.” These questions over how much control companies should be allowed is a question that today, if your today is my today, is perhaps more pressing than ever. Before we get there, though, one more creation must fall into our hands.

“Internet is a growing grid of independent computer networks interlaced” the news report so helpfully explains. “There’s not a lot of cursing or swearing, there’s not a lot of personal cuts, there’s not a lot of put downs.” Oh how things change.

The internet was such a magical possibility, a chance for people all over the world to connect in ways that never would have been possible before. Even now in 2017, even as so many of it’s corners have become a festering abscess of nastiness and abuse, it remains a source for good.

But now there is a question as to the Internets future. Net Neutrality is a term I see everywhere, and a term I can’t claim to fully understand. This fight around the internet seems very america eccentric, and it’s hard to gain a  proper overview of it from the outside. As I understand it, though, the concern is that internet providers are going to gain more control over their service, and will be able to specifically target competing companies and make it harder for users to access them. At this point there’s not much that can be done, and changes have already taken place allowing for data such as internet history and searches to be freely sold, but the fight is ongoing.

In the news report above they ask a question: what does the internet mean to you? The answers they get are honest and beautiful. “It’s a window to the world”, “it frees me to be me, not someone inconveniencing others with my needs as a deaf person”, and most heartfelt of all, “I can indulge my deep and abiding passion for all things Thai”. We looked forward to what the internet could do for us, we had hope in it’s goodness, even if it might have seemed like the world was moving too fast sometimes. We wanted the future, or that aspect of it at least.

But time and time again we discover that the reality is so much more difficult than the idea. The internet is still a relatively new thing, and it’s place in the world has yet to be cemented. Maybe the future will be a brilliant place, and maybe not, but the future is coming whether we like it or not. We owe it to ourselves to look at the past, and learn from it. We make the future, and we can make it better. Either way the internet will probably remain a pretty big deal, and right now we should fight for it, so that tomorrow is as exciting to experience as it is to imagine.

Thanks to r/OldNews for being such a brilliant source of curious news, and for giving me reams of stuff to pilfer.


Here are some cool things I thought I might steal from to write this but didn’t:

Gita! This little dude is basically Terry Pratchett’s Luggage, a storage space that follows you wherever you go. It’ll be carrying babies around in no time!

Breaking News! This is an episode of the podcast Radiolab, and like all of their work it’s fascinating and engaging and sometimes a little bit terrifying. Listen to it! It’s great!

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