April 15, 2024

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It's the Technology

Retrotechtacular: A 1960s Look At The 21st Century Home

If you only watch the first 60 seconds of 1967’s “At Home, 2001,” you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the film is riddled with missed predictions. And to be sure, the cold open is rife with them, from disposable paper furniture to seashell-shaped houses that look like they’re extruded from concrete. Really, the only clear winner from that first tranche of predictions is the rise of the microwave oven, which given the expense of magnetrons in 1967 and the complexity of the electronics needed to drive them was a non-obvious development.

But pushing beyond that opening to the meat of this film reveals a fair number of domestic trends that actually did manage to come true, at least partially, and if not by 2001 then shortly thereafter. The film is an educational piece hosted by iconic American newsman Walter Cronkite, who lends his gravitas to the proceedings. The film opens with “Uncle Walter” sonorously pontificating on the unsustainability of the “ticky tacky” spawl of the suburbs and how the situation simply must change.

Cronkite wasn’t wrong about that need, but his skepticism that we would somehow transition to apartments like “enormous brick beehives” and somehow be happy about it was well placed. Almost 60 years after that initial 30-year projection, things haven’t changed all that much, despite the wishes and efforts of various architects and designers interviewed for the film. None of their visions have come to pass in any serious way, although the “Habitat 67” project, which Moshe Safdie designed for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, kind of resembles recent attempts to build trendy, high-density urban housing using old shipping containers.

If the macro trends for the next 35 years were a bit off, the predictions for the specifics of domestic life in 2001 were a similarly mixed bag. Flat-screen TVs, enormous by 1960s standards, were an easy win, although they weren’t quite commonplace yet in 2001. And they got the 3D TV thing right, but only for about a year before the fad died a merciful death. Misses thankfully include inflatable and disposable furniture; sadly, the prediction of 30-hour workweeks and month-long vacations was another big swing and a miss.

The projection of 1960s technology three decades into the future seems pretty quaint, but with the Apollo program spaceflights very much in the zeitgeist at the time, the home control console that looks like it came from mission control is understandable. And the hilariously unconvincing mock-ups of the computers of the future where the man of the house would get his work done are worth a chuckle too. The automation of the home kitchen is pretty far off the mark, too; custom molded plates for each meal? Why?

What would be really interesting, though, would be to follow up with the Crawshaw family of Phoenix, Arizona. They were extremely early adopters of home computing, suffering as they did the presence of a Model 33 teletype in the kitchen for father Charles’ electrical engineering gig and mother Barbara’s domestic automation needs. We’d love to see what became of the Crawshaw girls, the eldest pushing 70 by now, thanks to their early exposure to a computer in the home.

And, of course, robots — or “robits,” according to Cronkite — were just around the corner, ready to do our domestic bidding. Think your Roomba is noisy? Wait till you get a load of what Professor M.W. Thring had in mind for the domestic robots of 2001. There’s one thing he got right, though: the lack of justification for anthropomorphized robots. Elon, are you listening?

What strikes us the most about “At Home, 2001” is just how little things have really changed since the film was made. 2001 is nearly as far in our rear-view mirror today as it was down the road in 1967, and the actual living situations of today bear far more resemblance to what our 1960s counterparts experienced than almost anything presented in the film. The real changes between 1967 and 2001 — cell phones, the ubiquity of personal computing, and the Internet — would have taken a true visionary to predict.

Thanks to [my wife] for the tip.