Another way to follow evolving social attitudes about computers is through the "concept videos" made by computer companies. Analogous to Detroit's concept cars, these videos are designed to show a company's visionary idea about what computers might be one day, without obliging it to actually build them.
The best place to look at these videos is at PaleoFuture (paleo-future.blogspot.com), which allows an amazing look back at visions of the future, starting back in the 1880s. The exhibit is curated with great wit by 24-year-old Matt Novak of Minneapolis. Most of these retrofutures are full of optimistic technology, like what you'd see at a World's Fair or Disneyland's World of Tomorrow.
Computer-company concept videos tend to be set in the immediate future, a happy time of well-dressed people who spend their days either running small businesses or preparing sales reports. PaleoFuture has two videos from the early 1990s, one from Sun Microsystems and the other from AT&T, telling us about life in 2004.
These videos avoid the silliness of similar efforts from the 1960s, such as the 1967 movie from Philco-Ford showing moms in 1999 pushing a button to make dinner. Still, they manage to blur easy engineering problems with very hard ones, which results in their being off by miles in some of their predictions. In most of these videos, for example, the computer understands casual spoken English well enough to be able to act as an ever-alert concierge, dialing up business associates on the phone and yanking reports on demand from its memory, then cheerfully saying something back to their owner after finishing a task.
Mr. Novak says that since then, the computer industry seems to have gotten smarter about how dumb computers can be and what they're really good for. "Computers of the future were to be artificial humans," he says. "At some point, we realized that we didn't care to talk with machines. We wanted to communicate with humans more efficiently."
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