Lessons in automation from Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry

I’ve been idly thinking about the automation of everyday life and the kinds of vision of a future that have been represented (repeatedly) by technology makers, not least in terms of ‘ubiquitous computing‘, and been thinking about the rich history of this from Worlds Fairs:

New York World's Fair 1939 -

And the forms of spatial imagination that were inherent within these visions of the future were leapt upon in popular culture, especially in cartoons. What I mean is: the ways in which the relationships between  people, buildings, locations, things and the sorts of ways of living that thereby emerge form a kind of vernacular for understanding possible futures, which are grounded in (broadly) speculative extrapolations of the experience of space and place.

From the obvious ‘space age’ Jetsons, to the less obvious reinterpretations of technologies of convenience (using Dinosaurs and stone tools) in the Flintstones, there was a lot of co-opting of the futures being sold by the likes of General Motors in their “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and Disney’s “Epcot“.

And so we get a Tom and Jerry cartoon that resonates with contemporary stories of the loss of jobs to automata – with ‘Thomas’ replaced by a robotic cat:

Another famous GM depiction of an automated home that draws on the forms of spatial imaginary of futurama and its ilk is the film “Design for Dreaming”, in which Thelma Tadlock guides us through the kitsch depictions of a cars and the kitchen of the future.

It is interesting (and heartening) that at the same time you get a satirised version of this with Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd in the Looney Tunes cartoon “Design for Leaving”, in which (of course) everything goes wrong [and in this vision there’s no Robert DeNiro plumber to fix it]:

Elmer Fudd – Design for Leaving by DwightFrye

These cartoons are somewhat emblematic of a satirising of visions of the future, almost contemporaneously, which is probably rather healthy. We (academics, anyway) have a tendency to take these future visions rather seriously and in many cases it is justified – ways of relating a future have politics and they do particular kinds of political work. Nevertheless, it seems like I (and possibly others) have missed a trick in not paying a little more attention to how popular culture addresses these lofty visions of an automated future everyday life.

I wonder if we might count the recent darkly humorous ‘speculative fictions’ Black Mirror, by Charlie Brooker in this tradition. For example, if we have the vision of a day with “Glass” by Google:

Then we have the accompanying tale of obsessive and creepy behaviour such forms of life-logging and AR might produce with “The Entire History of You”, the third episode of Black Mirror:

These of course stray from the topic of automation but they serve to illustrate the power of satire in relation to visions of the future. It would be great to see more cartoons that comically critique and reimagine the kinds of stories we are being currently told about a future of automated everyday life.

Incidentally, I’ll be touching on some of this in a ‘paper’ (talk) I am giving at the RGS-IBG annual conference this year (in Exeter!), as part of the ‘Algorithmic Practices‘ sessions.

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