My almost-4-year-old and I watched “The Jetsons” together today. In this episode, Elroy started out by solving an incomprensible math problem on the blackboard. Grade school, in the Jetsons future, was apparently much more advanced than today’s! After Elroy solved the problem, he returned to his seat where the boy next to him (the class clown) was shown distracting the other kids, making rude comments, and watching a rerun of “The Flintstones” on his hand-held mobile device.
It was almost 10 minutes later when I realized – “Hold on! They didn’t have iPods or iPhones back in the 60’s when this show was made!”
It didn’t dawn on me until much later that the blackboard Elroy used was hopelessly antiquated. If the animators could envision our ubiquitous mobile devices, even without the wealth of information they can access through the Internet, why not networked communications? Why not the very simple whiteboard?
Liebenau (2007), in a study by the London School of Economics intended to identify better ways to prioritize emerging technologies in the UK between 2007 and 2017, captured the problem of technology assessment in The Jetsons as part of his work. For example, he notes that both the Flintstones and the Jetsons portrayed suburban life from the social, cultural and moral perspective of the typical 1960’s American family – only the technologies were different. The most critical variables were unchanged:
They left alone most of the really interesting things: social and interpersonal life; spatial and temporal relations (even though the Jetsons used rockets they still travelled around the strict equivalent of their own neighbourhood); and work. They only tinkered with shelter, sustenance and security (everybody was always safe, although they occasionally crashed their stone-wheel cars and personal rockets). Where their imagination ranged more widely was with communication (where the Flintstones used a squawking bird for a factory whistle and the Jetsons used wrist-watch telephones – an image already common in futuristic comics of the 1920s like Dick Tracey). They probably meant to portray significant differences with regard to food, although that was less well thought out since the Flintstones merely ate huge joints of meat and the Jetsons ate processed gloop excreted from kitchen machines. They also had some imaginative notions of play, but both families had leisure time (and tastes) typical of aspirations of the American lower middle-class suburbanites they were… Whereas they captured the idea of the transformation of food, they did not imagine the associated social and commercial context brought about by fast food take-aways and eating at shopping malls.
Nor did they capture changes in the form and function of work – George labors at Spacely Sprockets, a manufacturing firm, during “normal business hours” each day and kicked off his shoes when he got home, greeted by a dinner made by Rosie, the robot helper. Fred heads to Slate Enterprises to operate the “heavy equipment” (dinosaurs) until the bird-whistle blows at the end of the day and he can go home. Their relationships with Mr. Spacely and Mr. Slate are identical, and mirror the hierarchical structures of the predictable, scientifically managed organization. Although George Jetson is often seen using a videoconferencing facility like Skype, he is never seen using this to attend a meeting at work or to otherwise get something done asynchronously.
The reason I find this scenario interesting is that it highlights the challenges we face today when we are assess the implementation of a particular technology in a specific context, or when we attempt to gauge the impact of emerging technologies on people, on the market, on relationships, or on society as a whole. We change our technologies, and then those technologies change and shape us, continuously impacted by the social, economic and cultural context.