Same Old

What is the point of imagining new technologies without new ways of living?

Full-text audio version of this essay.

The tagline was clear: “George Jetson heads a family of the future in a way of life very much like our own!” Premiering in 1962, the American cartoon The Jetsons showcased a glistening technofuture set in the year 2062. George Jetson, working man, enjoys the leisure of a largely automated society, only working two or three hours a week — but still commutes to the office by aerocar. There, his boss appears on wall-mounted screens to prosecute his productivity, in a space almost visually identical to Charlie Chaplin’s assembly-line factory in the 1936 classic Modern Times. Back at home, a robot maid takes care of most of the housework, but Jane Jetson retains the role and identity of the housewife. When George retires to the lounge chair, it is Jane who serves refreshments and asks, “bad day at the office?”

Some of these technologies have come to pass, while some continue to be sold as fantasy. But what The Jetsons really has in common with today’s technofutures is an unchanging, uncritical view of society itself. For decades, popular imaginings of the future have promised difference, but delivered more of the same: not only by recycling technical functions (the self-driving car, the robot housemaid) but, more perniciously, their underlying social relations. These technofutures regurgitate essentially the same office or kitchen as in decades past, and the same kinds of users and workers to inhabit them.

Such recycled futures that regurgitate the same office or kitchen from decades past masquerade as innovation to suck the life out of other possibilities

Such recycled futures masquerade as innovation to suck the life out of other possibilities. Space colonies and voice-controlled kitchens take on an air of inevitability despite their many postponements and disappointments, while critical refusal of these futures, or truly alternative visions, are cast as implausible. It is telling that our dominant technofutures have traditionally focused on two sites — the office and the kitchen — for this process of social conservation. Combined, they present a distinctly mid-century suburban ideal: masculinized labor and femininized (unpaid) labor; the full-time company employee and the nuclear home. As Bertolt Brecht once put it: “I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New.”

A key protagonist of today’s recycled futures is surely the smart machine. The injection of miniaturized sensors and data analytics into every kind of mundane object, from salt shakers to park benches, is often presented as tangible proof of meaningful technological progress, promising environments of frictionless consumption enabled by machines that “know you better than you know yourself.”

Of course, the blueprint for contemporary smart tech has been in circulation for decades. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading research centers were each pushing their own variant, such as Phillips’ “ambient intelligence” and IBM’s “pervasive computing.” One notable variant was “ubiquitous computing,” or ubicomp. Popularized by Xerox PARC technologist Mark Weiser, and his landmark 1991 article “The Computer for the 21st Century,” ubicomp emphasized unobtrusive, invisible machines that would “disappear into the woodwork.” Yet in my own archival research into ubicomp, what was striking was not so much the recurrence of specific technical designs, but the ways certain ideas about efficiency or convenience — and the presumed labor relations or gender roles undergirding them — remained static.

Consider a PBS television special from 1997, predictably titled “The Future Is Now.” The show featured a carousel of heavyweight Silicon Valley research hubs like AT&T/Bell Laboratories, Intel, and Xerox PARC, whose ambitious prototypes were presented as both imminent and inevitable. In one scene, Mark Weiser is found scribbling on the “Liveboard,” a large electronic whiteboard that supported remote collaboration and video teleconferencing. His colleagues follow along with prototypes of the PARCTab — stylus-operated tablets roughly the size of a modern laptop. Most of these inventions faltered well short of mass production: the Liveboard would be the only explicitly ubicomp machine from PARC to reach the market, and in relatively small quantities.

What is striking is not the machine’s humanness, but the lengths we are forced to go to become compatible with the machine

Later in the show, AT&T/Bell boasts a new flight booking system prototype that can listen to human speech and hold a conversation, as long as the human learns to talk in a flat, staccato monotone — in short, like a machine. Like the modern user who learns to “set” their face to unlock their phone, or to speak just so for the multi-choice maze of an automated customer service call, what is striking is not so much the machine’s humanness, but the lengths we are forced to go to become compatible with the machine.

Mark Weiser passed away from sudden illness in 1999. Ubicomp never became a dominant paradigm for existing consumer technologies, and Xerox PARC never recaptured the role of innovator it had enjoyed in the 1970s. But, as is often the case, technofutures live on long past their promised date of arrival. Ubicomp’s signature experiments (like internet-connected coffee pots) continue to be repackaged in the latest smart products like Astro or Ring. Ubicomp’s language of “disappearing computers,” too, lives on; though it is now apparent that the utopian trappings act as a Trojan horse for opaque machines and data exploitation. In the words of Apple’s celebrated designer Jony Ive: “When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical.”

Beyond technical capabilities, then, what unites these eras is a vision of the society in which they function. The white-collar office is so often the default test case, where technology promises to deliver both increased productivity and a more convenient workplace. A 1992 story in the Palo Alto Weekly imagines the “Office of the 21st Century,” revolving around a tech-savvy worker (named “Kris”) in a knowledge sector job: in other words, exactly the kind of workplace inhabited by the engineers and designers building these futures. In this fictional office, the ubicomp elevator greets Kris by name and “remembers” her destination. A screen inside lights up with an email from the boss: “as soon as your project analysis is done, don’t forget to send it to me.”

This office of the future offers momentary injections of speed, but otherwise doesn’t look much different from the office of the past, or of today. It still involves a deluge of meetings and emails, overbearing bosses and redundant paperwork, as well as more advanced versions of data exploitation, workplace surveillance, and other forms of power asymmetry. Indeed, if we look at Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, we find decades-old slogans like the “embodied” internet, dressed up in sedate virtual avatars that look straight out of a fossilized CD-ROM drive. The result is that the metaverse office — if it ever gets built at all — is likely to retain the same pointless drudgery and power imbalances, topped up with the hate speech and abuse that runs amok on Facebook and is already being found in Facebook’s VR headset applications. In the metaverse future, there are more apps, more videos, more microtransactions; more surveillance, more hate speech, more optimization for data collection and behavioral manipulation.

From Liveboard to the Metaverse, an outer shell of sleeker interfaces and slicker functions is constantly renewed — and that novelty is exactly what helps sustain the same old dynamics beneath. Worker surveillance is worker surveillance, whether conducted through old-school CCTVs or new “AI-driven” webcam software on the worker’s own laptop. Such “innovations” tend to accompany the moralizing injunction that to be a productive worker or a good citizen is to internalize these systems of measurement. When it is the only future we have known, it becomes harder to ask why.

For decades, technological futures have been obsessed with frictionless convenience. For the Jetsons in their Googie-themed universe, the pneumatic tube emblematizes the promise of instantaneity, delivering people, food, and data with equal efficiency. Today, we might talk about delivery robots, such as the four-wheeled Kiwibot — which turned out to be controlled by student workers in Colombia. While the truly automated future never quite arrives, the dream is perpetually tended by an ever-increasing population of badly paid, and badly treated ghost workers.

These recurring technofutures perpetuate a familiar equation in which convenience equals freedom — and to be free is to have things for free, not just in terms of the dollar cost, but the erasure of time, space, and human labor. In this vision, we are invited to be the “greedy” user that can have their cake and eat it too: maximally served by technology, and maximally insulated from its consequences. But as we have seen with reports of Big Tech turning to refugee camp labor for “clickwork” to service its machine learning systems, or the plight of precarious gig workers, the reduction of “friction” is often achieved not by an absolute elimination of costs, but their displacement onto the kinds of people and labor that are rendered invisible.

To better understand this dynamic, we can turn to the other default site of recycled technofutures: alongside the office, the kitchen. Seemingly every household appliance and its associated labor, from vacuuming to cooking, is regularly revisited as the frontier for a frictionless future. In 1999, Electrolux unveiled the “Screenfridge,” claimed to be the first internet-connected fridge (complete with a small built-in screen). Today’s smart fridges are retreading the same territory with larger screens, and still struggling to demonstrate their raison d’être. The Screenfridge’s contemporaries included gadgets like NCR’s “Microwave Bank,” which could surf the web as well as reheat dinner. It could even scan barcodes of kitchen items to automatically reorder them online — a concept replicated in the 2010s by Amazon’s Dash buttons, which in turn are being subsumed into the Alexa assistant today.

Such “innovations” tend to accompany the moralizing injunction that to be a productive worker or a good citizen is to internalize these systems of measurement

Again, the problem isn’t simply the technical repetition, but the fact that each new generation helps fossilize and retrench the associated social relations. In the office of the future, the imagined user is the white-collar worker for whom meetings and emails remain seemingly immutable laws of nature. In the kitchen, the role is occupied by the inevitably gendered housewife who, like Jane Jetson, remains tethered to the kitchen despite all of the inventions meant to erase that work. In promising (and failing) to erase housework, innovation as we know it reaffirms longstanding hierarchies that consign certain kinds of work and worker to devaluation and invisibility.

The work of Ruth Schwartz Cowan demonstrates this dynamic in the arrival of appliances like microwaves, washing machines and refrigerators in the first half of the 20th century. In More Work for Mother, Cowan showed that these technologies did not necessarily result in a net reduction of women’s housework hours. Instead, the new electrical machines were often replacing the paid labor of domestic workers. American families in the early 20th century, even economically “uncomfortable” ones, often maintained day workers or live-in workers as a regular supply of labor. It was this kind of household “help” that declined with the spread of new electrical appliances. For one family, all this might have meant easier and cheaper laundry than before; for another family, the change might have been an affluent housewife going from doing no laundry to now doing some laundry assisted by the machine. The reduction of certain kinds of housework was accompanied by rising expectations elsewhere. Childcare norms, for instance, became far more demanding in the postwar years, requiring more and more of the housewife’s time.

This relation stretches back much further than the internet-enabled fridge. In 1899, a group of Parisian artists produced a series of beautifully illustrated postcards entitled “En L’An 2000,” intended for the 1900 Paris Exhibition. In one illustration, a device that we might now call a “smart” scrubber — mounted on wheels, and with two “arms” handling soap and brush — can be seen cleaning the floor. This automatic service seems to require the supervision of a female servant who, clad in maid attire, holds a control rod wired to the main unit.

Funding problems meant the postcards never actually made it to the expo floor. But their themes were later picked up by none other than Isaac Asimov, who acquired the postcards in the 1980s and decided to publish an annotated version called Futuredays. (The book continues to inspire new reflections and archives of past futures, such as Matt Novak’s Paleofutures.) Asimov’s explanation isn’t quite historically accurate, but it captures the displacement at the heart of the promised future: “There was a time when the mistress of the house, having given instructions to the servants, need do nothing at all. Of course, the servants had to slave, day in and day out, so if we were now to picture the year 2000, or possibly 2050, we could picture intelligent robots doing it all.”

The promise of automation provides crucial cover for outsourcing, underpaying, and otherwise externalizing real costs

The persistent technological fantasy of frictionlessness harbors, at heart, capital’s need to pretend that certain kinds of work doesn’t really exist. Since the kitchen is automated, the woman must be free; when the drones deliver our food, the gig economy’s labor problems will disappear. In reality, the promise of automation provides crucial cover for outsourcing, underpaying, and otherwise externalizing the real costs of technology to the most vulnerable workers in the chain. It is the gig workers for delivery apps, or refugee workers in clickwork farms, who pay for the paper-thin illusion of AI — not only through risible pay and benefits, but the constant pressure to adapt their own bodies and working patterns to meet the platform’s unpredictable and “perverse” demands.

Fredric Jameson once wrote that science fiction has become not a place for encountering utopia, but a testament to “our incapacity to imagine the future,” and to the structural limits placed on our political imagination. Today, product demonstrations are as much an example of science fiction as any other popular entertainment. Successive generations of recombined slogans and wondrous objects help recirculate the same old futures, pulling us back to a world of suits in cubicles and aprons in kitchens, evoking that soothing mid-century dream in which we were supposedly modern, and nothing really fundamental needed to change about society.

How different, really, is the latest generation of unlikely promises? Artificial intelligence, now inflated to describe a wide variety of systems that are neither artificial nor intelligent, provides recycled fantasies of instant consumption and self-driving cars that reprise the dream of convenience as freedom. AI also forms Big Tech’s route to maintaining and strengthening its supply of military funding by reviving Cold War narratives of a technological arms race. The constant death and rebirth of words and things masks the closure of the future: If bitcoin is starting to feel old and tired, then why not NFTs? If Second Life or Google Glass didn’t cut it the first time, why not the metaverse?

In my book, Technologies of Speculation, I call this honeymoon objectivity: the incitement to fall in love with each new technology just as we break it off with the previous one, maintaining a stagnant cycle in which the next great invention, the next transgressive genius, again promises to deliver a utopia of frictionlessness and objective certainty. But this recycling of technofutures is fundamentally a conservative force, in which a highly limited selection of technical benchmarks, use-cases, and social relations are dressed up over and over again, with no thought to whether they’re worth preserving, or what could be built in their place. As Jameson hinted, to be transfixed by the future is to be paralyzed by it.

Sun-Ha Hong is Assistant Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Technologies of Speculation: The Limits of Knowledge in a Data-Driven Society (NYU Press, 2020), and his current research explores how popular technofutures facilitate and resonate with the technological proliferation of harmful information.