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 frightened us, and the media has made much from the exploitation of this fear. The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 was so well directed by Orson Welles that it fooled a nation (or just a few of the more gullible of population, depending on who you ask).

Despite being a halloween production, and having a pre-show disclaimer announcing it as fiction, many were unfortunate enough to tune in late, and were plunged into a terrifying speculative reality. Aliens invading earth! A desperate fight to survive! Our very existence threatened! It felt, and in many ways still feels, uncannily possible.

People were rattled by The War of the Worlds. Many were angry.  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. The War of the Worlds, needless to say, was a huge success.

But back to the robot invasion of 1944.

“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 images presented by the The Catalina Islander belong in the pages of a H.G Wells novel, but with the advent of World War Two, global technological advancements were soaring, and our fear of the future felt more valid than ever.

“Experience has shown,” the article goes on, “that we can’t just laugh off these seemingly crazy predictions.” 1939 had proven that the future wasn’t fifty years away. It was tomorrow. “One thing is certain” the article continues. “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 and World War Two was over. Twenty-two years after that, and technology was unrecognisable. The Cincinnati Enquirer on 17 Sep 1967 wrote eagerly (and quite a lot like your grandparents) that “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.” 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’re a world away from 1939.

Then, in the 1990’s, along came the internet.

 

 

“Internet is a growing grid of independent computer networks,” the news report 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 magic. A chance for people all over the world to connect in ways that never would have been possible before.

Governmental relationships to the internet have become the subject of much debate in recent months. Net Neutrality is a term I see everywhere, and one I can’t claim to fully understand. The concern seems to be that internet providers will gain more control over the service they provide, and in turn will maliciously target competing companies. Perhaps legislation such as this is a necessary step in preserving the internet’s value to humankind. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of our repeating fears.

In the news report above, they ask a question: What does the internet mean to you? The answers 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.” Most heartfelt of all: “I can indulge my deep and abiding passion for all things Thai.” We were passionate, in 1993, about what the internet could do for us. For once, we weren’t so scared. We wanted the future.

The internet is still a relatively new thing, and its place in the world has yet to be cemented. Maybe the future will be brilliant, and maybe not, but the future is coming. We owe it to ourselves to look at the past, and learn from it. We make the future, and we can make it better. So, right now we should educate ourselves. We should decide what future we want to cultivate. And 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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